I’ve been a keen gardener since childhood. While other teens were exploring herbs, I was exploring herbs. I spent many fond hours propped up on the couch, perusing entries in Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs. Outdoors, I made it my mission to prune every overgrown shrub in our yard. I experimented with teas made from wildflowers.
When it came to mealtime, though, I didn’t make the connection between growing and eating, and in this I think I was entirely ordinary. What most of us put on our plates comes cut and portioned from a sanitized grocery store shelf. In fact, it’s often also pre-made and pre-cooked and doesn’t resemble a living being. No blood, guts, rot, dirt, manure, worms, flies, holes, root fibres, or extraneous anything.
I never made an association between my vegetable consumption and my gardening, until I had children of my own to follow me into the garden. I knew they would enjoy growing carrots more than dahlias. Toddlers don’t care about curb appeal; they want to accomplish something. Mine were wondering what dirt was made of, and why we couldn’t grow an ice cream tree. Exploring the connection between nature and dinner table would be a pleasantly mind-blowing experience for them, I thought smugly.
Our family had a backyard that was new to us, though the weeds had obviously lived there for generations. I hacked my way through, summer after summer, rescuing raspberry canes in one corner and uncovering garlic and chives and a sprawling rhubarb plant. From garden store packets we planted beans and beets, arugula, strawberries, carrots, cucumber, a pumpkin and tomatoes. It was a struggle. The best growing patch—in full sun at the back of the lot—was out of sight and out of mind, and the soil remained poor and infested with crabgrass and meadow weeds. I can’t say I was much more diligent than my five-year old in tending this little garden. Our lives were elsewhere, full and busy. Our plants languished.
Even so, what harvest the squirrels and rabbits and weird beetle-thingies left to us, we rejoiced in. Chives became an essential topping, even for porridge. In July, a daily hunt began for strawberries and raspberries, picked and eaten in the same motion. Over the course of a summer, our cucumber vine grew a single, four-inch cuke. When harvest day came we sat down, passed around plates, and I sliced the prickly green veggie as solemnly as if it were a birthday cake; the children would have told you it tasted just as good.
Luckily, I had friends with superior vegetable gardens. One of them had just moved from downtown Toronto to the back of beyond, abandoning her job of many years at a bond rating agency to start an organic farm. Brenda came back into my life by way of my kitchen. We subscribed for a food share from her Black Sheep Farm, and soon we were receiving kilos upon kilos of swiss chard and zucchinis and musk melon on a bi-weekly basis. Because Brenda was Brenda, she also grew unusual things like golden beets, ground cherries and purple carrots. We visited her farm once or twice, met her free-ranging chickens and toured her organic vegetable patch, which I was gratified to note had just as many weeds as mine. Brenda and I agreed there was nothing like growing your own vegetables to put a value on nourishment. She said it worked the same way for meat: personally killing, plucking and quartering a chicken helped you to truly appreciate your plate of coq au vin.
No doubt some people thought Brenda was crazy to give up her condo and lucrative salary for vegetables. Not I. Vegetables are intriguing, damnit, and important! Indeed, all around us the cultural kitchen tables were turning. The organic food movement, slow food advocates and raw food activists were speaking up and being heard. “Plant-based eating,” as Michael Pollan called it, had arrived on center stage. It turned out that home-grown vegetables were not just tastier, they might be the solution to a number of modern problems. Not the least of which was figuring out what to cook my family for dinner.
According to Michael Pollan, “North American food culture is so debauched that much of what we buy to eat doesn’t even qualify as food[i].” Profit maximization dictates that the corporate food industry work to make edible products that resist infestation, last longer on store shelves, ripen artificially, grow to mega size, and smell deceptively fresh and “homestyle.” When “natural flavour” refers to a lab chemical and crop yields come from genetically modified stock, you know you’re a long way from nature.
This is where the humble vegetable gets crazy beautiful. It turns out that vegetables are way more than the sum of their chemical components. Remember broccoli? First they said it prevented cancer, then they said it caused it. Don’t blame broccoli, blame reductive food science: that is, the attempt to extract from the brassica family a single beneficial nutrient, namely beta-carotene. When beta-carotene is ingested on its own in a supplement, it may actually increase the risk of disease. Why? It seems that in order for our bodies to benefit from the anti-oxidants in fresh produce, these anti-oxidants need to work in conjunction with . . . well, who really knows? It could be the other chemicals present, or the fibre, perhaps the vitamins, even the oils. There’s simply nothing like a real vegetable.
Chemical analysis of a leaf of garden-variety thyme reveals forty-five different anti-oxidants, and we have no idea how they interact inside our bodies during the digestion process. In fact, as per recent insights from intestinal ecology, digestion itself is likely way more complex than the mere breaking-down of chemicals [ii]. Cocktail party fact: there are roughly as many neurons in the human digestive tract as in the spinal column. The moral of the story? Eat your greens. The actual plants.
However fascinating at the cellular level, constant vegetable-eating might get boring if there weren’t tens of thousands of tasty, good-looking plants to choose from. Yes, you read correctly. Tens of thousands, not the typical smattering at one end of the supermarket. The truth is, there isn’t just “broccoli” as we commonly refer to it, that dark-green miniature tree. Instead there are broccolis by the dozen: petite and towering ones, coloured green and purple-brown and whorled in creamy white, some that don’t even grow to a head, but whose stalks are the delicacy. They have funky names like Spigiarello and Piracicaba, and equally funky histories.
Likewise, there are thousands of kinds of lettuces, each with distinctive flavours, and hundreds of potato and eggplant and bean varieties, to mention but a few species. And as for tomatoes, at least ten thousand kinds could be growing in my garden. Here, in crazy beautiful vegetable land, there are other things you’ve never dreamed of: land seaweed, melons the size of olives, something called a rat-tail radish, wonderberries, music garlic, the “five minute” plant, pink-striped green beans that grow eight inches long, and a tomato they call Mr. Keeper, which will store for months without rotting, out on your kitchen counter.
To get an inkling of the diversity of vegetable life on our planet, Google “heirloom seeds.” Heirloom refers to any cultivar that has been propagated by seed for over fifty years. In other words, these are plants that have escaped the relentless, homogenizing imperative of modern agriculture. By ordinary standards, many are downright odd. That’s the problem with ordinary standards. Take the ancient Peruvian blue potato, which can still be grown from heirloom seed. It is the size of a golfball, and when you slice it open, its ringed flesh looks as if somebody tie-dyed it a brilliant blue. The Incas grew potatoes in reds, pinks, yellows and oranges, sweet and bitter, water-loving and drought-tolerant, and Peruvian farmers and cooks have sustained that diversity into present day. Almost four thousand varieties of potatoes exist there of all shapes, sizes and flavors, remaining a staple of the nation’s cuisine.
Whether or not you enjoy gardening, consider the sheer scale of this edible plant diversity—what you could be enjoying compared to what you’re currently being sold. Personally, I have misgivings about leaving the future of vegetables in the hands of Big Ag and the purveyors of bland, white food substances with flavor and color enhancements. The time had come to ask, not what the humble vegetable had done for me, but what could I do for the humble vegetable?
Spread its seeds, was one good suggestion. I attended a talk at my local library to learn about “saving seeds” and, fifty color slides later, I was hooked on heirlooms. In the dead of winter, I drove my young kids to a Seedy Saturday exchange in Niagara Falls, bribing them with the promise of doughnuts. Seedy Saturdays are grassroots seed exchanges and seed sales of open pollinated crops; they sprout up all over the country during the winter. This one was being held in the small gymnasium of a neighbourhood church. The three of us struggled in out of the cold, stomping snow from our boots, unsure what to expect.
The idea of a seed exchange, as its name suggests, is to exchange the seed you’ve saved from your own plants during the growing season for the seeds of others. We were such newbies we didn’t bring seeds to swap. At the entrance, for a fifty-cent donation, we were encouraged to choose a small baggie of seeds, donated for the unprepared folks like us. Then we toured the room, seeing what others had to offer.
I was beginning to get a grasp on the novel idea that seeds could be collected from plants. Take for instance the dragon tongue bean, whose mottled pink-and-brown seeds I took home from my first Seedy Saturday. The gardener who gave them to me said she’d simply let the last growth of her bean plants dry out on their stalks. Then she picked, shelled, and shared. Who knew you could do this, instead of buying a packet labeled “beans” from the garden store each spring? Actually, you can’t, not with most of today’s monocrop cultivars.
These plants produce seeds that are completely infertile, and the companies that sell these plants have designed them this way. Don’t bother planting the seeds you’ve scooped from a conventional grocery store melon, for example. You’ll get nowhere. By contrast, the heirloom varieties of fruits and veggies exchanged at Seedy Saturdays are what is called open-pollinated: they will develop fertile seeds with the help of natural pollinators like bees. Relying on open pollination—also known as Nature—means it is possible to survive without having to buy things. Seed-saving and seed-sharing are political acts worthy of an Adbusters campaign. If you doubt it, consider the struggles of activist Vandana Shiva, who has been fighting Monsanto for decades over the right of subsistence farmers in India to sow the native seeds they collect from their own crops. Monsanto wants the farmers to have to buy their genetically modified seed, plus the chemicals and fertilizers needed to keep the resulting mono-crops alive.
Many other seed-savers recognize their gardening as a progressive social act. On their website, Seed Savers Exchange, the foremost American organization for the exchange of heirloom seed varieties, states that “the future of our planet depends on a genetically diverse food supply” and “recognizes that the strategies and tactics being employed by the agricultural biotechnology industry are diametrically opposed to our efforts to protect our garden heritage” and “grow healthy food for our families.” Likewise, in her humorous memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver documents the eco-political importance and the practical difficulty of growing and eating local. My family was nowhere near able to survive on our vegetable patch, but it was a revelation for me to think of gardening as way of sustaining biodiversity. Not only were they healthy and surprisingly diverse, vegetables could be politically radical, right down to their roots. At the Niagara Seedy Saturday, after hours spent carefully inspecting all the seedy wares, my children declined to trade their door-prize packets; they’d become quickly attached to the promise of white icicle radishes and purple beauty peppers.
There was still three months of winter to go. So, mimicking any serious gardener, I sought out seed catalogues and cultivated my imagination instead. Nowadays heirloom seeds are a click away. Page after page of glossy, glistening veggies can turn temptation into obsession, but you can always justify your window shopping by its educational content. Fruits and vegetables have histories, indeed. It’s just that when they were turned into commodities, we started thinking of them more like edible objects. (In vegetable lore, the post-WWII era could be called The Great Forgetting.)
It is difficult to convey the scale of the historical lore and practical wisdom available to seed enthusiasts. Take the Yugoslavian finger fruit, alias pineapple squash, which has a singular geneology to match its singular morphology. Believed to be from Chile originally, “James J. H. Gregory introduced this variety in 1884,” one website entry recorded. Ivory-colored, with distinctive “wings” along its body, “this squash can be eaten as a summer squash when young or left to mature to be an interesting conversation piece.” Another pedigreed variety, the White Scallop squash, had been illustrated by a famous French botanist and cultivated by Thomas Jefferson. Paying $3 or $4 for a packet of open-pollinated seeds to start our own branch of this veggie genealogy seemed like an incredible bargain.
The following spring, my children planted their icicle radishes and purple pepper seeds, along with a garden full of other open pollinated varieties; some we started indoors, and transplanted as the weather warmed. We seeded, we watered, we weeded, and they grew. For children and adults alike, those first leaflets are always a little miraculous. Much later, slugs were to infest our Merveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce and a free-loading chipmunk dug himself a burrow right under the sprawl of yellow pear tomatoes, but for the most part our new garden was a resounding and abundant success. We had planted a good deal of seeds and seedlings, true, but each plant seemed to me incredibly fertile. To any house guests I happened to immediately direct toward our lush vegetable patch I apologized, tongue in cheek, for the jungle our backyard had become. After all, who really needed to distinguish one sprawling vine from another? Just pick and enjoy, for you have arrived in crazy vegetable land.
And, oh, this was a delicious realm. In our lives and in our bowls we had poetry in produce. There is nothing like the burst of flavor when you pop a fresh-picked cherry tomato in your mouth. To say you are tasting sunlight is perhaps the best approximation. My little ones gave me daily updates as to how many fruits on each of our varieties were coming ripe. Potatoes were a special joy to all of us. I’d never grown them, and so I’d never tasted them fresh. Turns out a true potato is dense but moist, like a pear, not hard and dry. Potatoes were fun to harvest too; we wiggled our hands into the earth until our fingers found knobby treasures of different shapes and sizes. The green we call arugula and the English call rocket—a plant that resembles a roadside weed—turned out to be my personal favorite. All spring and summer I picked it in fragrant handfuls to add to our salads and it never failed to surprise my taste buds with its verdant, peppery personality.
I saved my arugula’s seed. I let the last shoots of the summer grow tall and spindly and cap themselves in tiny white flowers. (Did I mention vegetable gardening is an exercise in patience?) Finally the flowers turned to seedpods, magically it seemed to me, and then I waited some more until the pods dried upon the withering stalks. Arugula seeds are the same size and colour as poppy seeds. Carefully, I split each miniature bean-shaped pod at its seam and gently scraped the contents into a Ziploc bag, feeling as I imagine all wizards do—slightly foolish, but mostly powerful. I was working in humble service of a vegetable lineage; my family’s future looked exceptionally tasty and healthy.
[i] Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
[ii] The Economist, August 2012.
Karen Quevillon is an award-winning poet and creative writer. Originally educated as a philosopher, she made a ‘linguistic turn’ several years ago and began freelancing as a copywriter and social media maven. She currently works as a college program manager (Seneca College, Toronto), where she has also taught part-time courses in creative writing, literature and liberal studies subjects. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her two creative kids and their guinea pigs.