Having come full circle this 2012 gardening season, from planting seeds to harvesting the vegetables in late summer and early fall, I’m struck by the time consuming process and the fragility of growing one’s own food. Over four months, I’ve watched the long growing process of my Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, tomatoes, and other vegetables, as they matured and ripened. I’ve also witnessed my crop failures, including my pumpkins, which barely produced. It’s a reminder of how fragile life could really be if we had to depend on our gardens to support ourselves as our ancestors did. Gardening has given me the gift of understanding how our food is produced, and a higher respect for it.

Since beginning to garden, I’m less inclined to waste. I now know the time and effort that’s put into growing my own vegetables, not to mention the strong chance that my efforts will fail. Tomato seeds typically get planted as early as mid-March and the plants sit in a sunny window until they’re ready to go in the ground in June. I don’t get to pick and eat the tomatoes until August, and although usually abundant, there’s always the chance that the tomato plants will get destroyed by blight, tomato worms, or lack of water. Dry beans  can take three to four months before we get to see the fruits of our labour—those little shiny black beans that come out of the dried pods—and even then, there’s no guarantee that there will be anything. They could fail because rain resulted in mouldy dry beans, or it might be as simple as the seeds didn’t germinate at all. Knowing the long and fragile process, it therefore makes me sad to see this food, however cheaply grown, go to waste. I’ve watched some of the people I’ve shared heirloom tomatoes with let them go bad in their fridges; I’ve even been a bit guilty of this myself, simply because there’s just too much to get through. But, I’m more conscious of how my food is grown, and more interested in making sure the few things that come out of the garden are put to good use. Everything that comes out of the garden is precious.

I’m thrilled to be able to fill just two pint-sized jars with dried beans, however insignificant that might seem; I’ve always taken the large bags of dried beans at the grocery store for granted, but growing my own, every single bean counts. It’s rewarding to get enough Chioggia beets from the garden for only four little jars of pickled beets. Over the month of August, I felt satisfied seeing bags of tomato sauce and green beans going into the freezer, knowing that these things are small rewards gained through my own labour. I’m sad when I’ve put the effort in to grow pumpkins to watch them rot before they’ve even begun to ripen. But these are the small rewards and the tribulations that gardeners face; plants can only produce so much, and some plants don’t produce at all due to a bad season.

The joy of gardening for me is seeing those little accomplishments and being able to understand where my food comes from and how it’s produced so that I no longer take it for granted. Not everyone has the space or even the time to grow their own food, but at the very least we can all open our eyes to how it’s produced so that we can respect our farmers and the food they produce for us. We can understand, therefore, that the cost of vegetables grown by farmers may be higher because a bad season meant they didn’t produce as well. We can also appreciate better the work that goes into producing what we eat to avoid waste as much as possible. These are perhaps the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from gardening.

photo courtesy Edsel L (CC-BY-SA)