Earlier this year, something inside of me snapped. I'm a vegetarian (and not always a strict one), and for the longest time I had problems maintaining a consistently healthy diet. Ironically, I was a vegetarian for health reasons, but I was not eating healthy food—one could fairly call me a junk-food vegetarian. I was a special sort of clueless. I kept racking my brain, thinking "Why is it so difficult to eat healthy, vegetarian or otherwise? This shouldn't be as hard as I'm making it. What's the deal?"
I started to look at how we view food. For many people, food is an object of pleasure, something to be enjoyed as often as one wants. For others, food is simply sustenance, a necessarily nourishing daily routine. But do we know where our food comes from? Sure, we all know that fruits and veggies are much better for our cardiovascular health than a 24 oz. porterhouse, but how is all of this stuff grown? Millions upon millions of pounds of leafy greens, potatoes, apples, peppers, etc. How did this splendor make it's way to the Walmart produce section? And more importantly, how long has it been there?
Spring of this year, I'd had it. I pledged to buckle down, get my hands dirty, and try to grow my own food. I'd grown sick of blind compliance. I also wasn't unrealistic about this little adventure. I'm a student with a part-time desk job. I have numerous extracurricular and familial commitments. I couldn't dump the real world to the side of the road and become Farmer Chris overnight. That being said, I wanted to hold myself accountable. I've always relished the idea of self-sufficiency, but up until this garden experiment, I'd never really applied it to anything. I was going to see where this thing took me. I came out of it with a better sense of the difficulties of growing your own food—it can be a very frustrating process, one wrought with major ups and downright failures. I also experienced the untempered joy of growing edibles with my own two hands.
The project got a bit of a late start. I was busy toying with the idea of buying some 2x4's of cedar and screwing them together to build my own raised bed garden, but I had a better and (more importantly) cheaper option. Our family was throwing out some old deck boxes in the backyard; I commandeered one of them and made it my own. I gave it a good power-washing, ripped off the top cover, and drilled drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess water to escape.
My next challenge was twofold: 1) Find a good spot for the garden (one without too much shade), and 2) Fill the thing with soil—lots of soil.
It was important for me to purchase as much organic product as I could. If this experiment proved to be a success, I knew organic soil would much easier to maintain over multiple seasons. It was a bit expensive at first but would prove to be cost-effective in the long-run.
Then I picked my plants. This is the part of the experiment where I just sort of... winged it. It was late May by this time, so rather than buying seeds I bought startup plants: tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, broccoli, purple bell peppers, and okra. What I ever thought I would use okra for is beyond me.
The other plants proved extremely useful. In late spring I added some potted strawberries and a gaggle of herbs (parsley, chives, spearmint, rosemary, basil, and lavender) which made cooking directly from the garden both fun and tasty.
Throughout this process, I learned that it isn't as hard to grow your own food as I thought, though it isn't without its downsides. I had more cucumbers than I could possibly eat; the plant quickly became overgrown and began attracting cucumber beetles, which (according to a friend in UCM's excellent Agriculture program) are nearly impossible to exterminate. Broccoli does not fair well in heat, which made for a frustrating July and August on that front. Same goes for the sweet potatoes; they were small and scattered, but still made for a delicious treat when setting in the oven to bake. The bell peppers were a success, as were the tomatoes. And the okra... I'd rather not talk about the okra.
I understand that one small garden isn't going to completely eliminate trips to the grocery store, but it will save money in the long-run. Gardening also helped me adopt healthier habits—and not only eating habits. I spent much more time in the sunlight than I would have otherwise, and for someone who doesn't exercise regularly (I know, I know), it was a productive way to stay active and engaged.
I encourage all college students to give this a try. It can save you money, provide you with fresh produce, and give you peace of mind as to where your food is coming from—your own hard work. Perhaps most importantly, a valuable skill is learned. If we can't trust our own two hands, what exactly can we trust? I know from this point on, every single spring/summer/fall day, I'll be using my hands to cultivate my own food. In that, there is an infinite reward.