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An ode to the Prairie garden

Letter Five from Northern Blossom Farms: In his fifth instalment from Northern Blossom Farms, Gary Martens 
reflects on the value a garden brings to a farmer’s life

In previous letters I have discussed three major components of a complete farm; crops, livestock, trees and the whole that results from these components. I propose that there is a fourth component that is already present on many farms and that is the garden.

Gardening is an activity that is common to many people in the world. As a matter of fact, a garden is the whole farm for an estimated 500 million people in the Second, Third and Fourth World who farm less than two hectares of land and feed half of the world’s population.

I believe that gardening could be an activity that unites rural and urban, farmers and non-farmers, rich and poor, First World and Second, Third and Fourth World.

Gardeners have so much in common. I only realized recently that my mother was actually a subsistence farmer by keeping her garden. Subsistence means that your first goal is to produce for yourself and your family and then if there is something left over, you sell it or trade it.

Commercial farming on the other hand is a business where money is the unit of measure. Many farmers in the First World buy all their groceries from the grocery store just like non-farmers. Even dairy farmers typically buy their milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream at the grocery store with money generated from selling their milk.

Gardening is amazingly energy efficient.

Hand labour can produce 40 calories of energy out for every one calorie of human energy put in. This is much better than conventional mechanized farming which produces about eight calories out for one calorie in.

Even though this makes gardening look good in terms of energy efficiency, gardening is much more than the production of healthy vegetables, nuts and fruit. Gardening is a satisfying physical activity that actually produces something. I never could get myself to go to the gym, it seemed like such a useless activity to me, but put me in the garden or doing other useful physical work and I will be happy.

I remember my mother putting me and my siblings to work in the garden and I also remember complaining about having to do the work. If my mother was alive today I would apologize for complaining because she taught me how to work, the value of work and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

Even today, employers look for “farm” kids because they know that farm kids have been taught how to work and how to work hard for extended periods of time; a valuable life skill that I learned on my mother’s subsistence farm.

Looking back, the best job was shelling peas. My mother would pick the peas in the early morning and I had the privilege of sitting in the shade listening to the radio and shelling peas by hand. Shelling peas was much better than the jobs my dad gave me — shovelling pig manure, carrying feed pails, shovelling grain in the dust and hoeing sugar beets.

I have basically been discussing kitchen gardens which are beautiful in a utilitarian sort of way. But there is a place for flowers, shrubs and ornamental and shade trees in the garden as well.

Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire tells us that plants satisfy at least four desires in us. The desire for sweetness is met in the apple, the desire for intoxication is met in the marijuana plant, the desire for control in the potato and the desire for beauty in the tulip.

He tells fascinating stories on each one, helping us realize that plants and people are in this complicated relationship. We think that “We choose the plant, we choose the variety, we pull the weeds,” but Michael Pollan makes us question whether it is that one sided by suggesting that we choose a plant because it gives us what we desire.

The plant gives us what we desire because then we will save and multiply and spread the seeds of that plant, which is also in the plant’s interest for survival and thriving. It is a matter of mutual benefit.

Back to the desire for beauty; many farmyards in Manitoba are beautiful.

Farm families put a lot of work and thought into making their yards esthetically pleasing, as do rural non-farm families and city people with yards and balconies. Beauty is a universal value and the garden is an important part of that beauty.

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