Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fertile Warehouse

This year is to be my grand experiment in urban agriculture. For the past several years I have, as a hobby, grown a few edibles in pots on whatever outdoor surface in whatever sliver of sunlight my rental unit afforded me at the time. Results have included some mildewy peas, grumpy tomatoes, leggy herbs bolting towards reproduction like exceptionally hormonal teenagers, and a salvaged fruiting fig that may as well just join the rest of my indoor Ficus for all its prudish disinclination towards actually fruiting. But this year is different. Having managed to stay put in the same apartment for more than one season and having had marginal success with edibles last summer, I am ready to unleash the repressed farmer within. I will push the envelope of urban gardening to see just how much of my own produce I can produce from nothing but pots on a patio.
So far, this has translated into much more planning much earlier than I am used to. Unable to work my acreage with a team of horses or a tractor (these being somewhat overkill for the 10 or so incongruous square inches of actual earth to be found between the sidewalks, fences and parking lots which constitute my back yard), I must go out and find (i.e. buy) soil and containers in which to put it. This, when you think about it, is a strange but not necessarily interesting twist on the hunter/gatherer versus sedentary farmer dichotomy: I am one in order to become the other.
Moving on...
The point is, because of my stubborn determination to grow food where none should grow, I find myself in surreal places like Home Depot and Costco seeking the cheapest price for earth and pots: two of the first things humans ever knew what to do with. It came as no surprise to me, when I first braved the rush-hour madness of wholesale consumerism at its finest (aka Costco), that they indeed had the largest, most absurdly reasonably-priced bag of potting soil I'd ever seen (not just soil mind you, but if I've interpreted the bag marketing correctly, a whole potting lifestyle: with more satisfaction than a life of charity and more trademarks, patents and overall technology than cell-phones from 8 years ago). So I swallowed my pride with a bit of my soul and lugged a bag onto my oversized shopping cart (how the average Costco patron manages this feat is beyond me; I move dirt for a living and still had to concentrate mightily on thinking un-hernia thoughts). What did surprise me was the semi-aisle across from the potting soil devoted exclusively to fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
These plants, stacked and strangled by packaging, lit by a distant aircraft-hangar fluorescence, seemed as out-of-place as it's possible for plants to be. I picked up a two-pack of blueberry bushes (two different varieties even, for better pollination!) and began questioning my plan. Is this what it means to hybridize the urban and rural tendencies of humanity? Do city-dwellers get to taste the fruits of their own labor only if most of the mystery (and labor, come to think of it) is removed, all the complicated parts filled in for them? Here is part A (soil) and part B (plant); add part B to part A, wait 5 months and enjoy! Repeat the following year! Does this offer any genuine connection to our agricultural heritage? Do we feel like farmers? If Costco started selling live cattle and, across the aisle, brand new cow-slaughtering machines from GE, would they make ranchers of us all?
In the end, I decided that there are worse hobbies to have than amateur gardener/farmer (like amateur cow-slaughterer, for one) and that if busy people can find a few minutes in which to put a plant in a pot and water it a few times and get a few blueberries out of it, they probably feel a measure of happiness and satisfaction, even if it doesn't make them a bonafied dirt-whisperer with an acres-long gaze and dreams of the fertile crescent. If you think about it, the first farmers must have themselves been amateurs whose curiosity or desperation (likely both) led them to add part B to part A. So maybe the Costcoans are channeling that ancient spirit. Even if not, the more people growing their own healthy food, the better, and if Costco blueberries are a step in that direction then so be it.
At least that's what I told myself as I waited in the quarter-mile long checkout line with a shiny new shrink-wrapped two-pack of blueberry plants in my cart.

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