19 September 2010

Personal Produce

This is the first in a ten(ish)-week series that will take a look at our love of gardening and getting our hands a little dirty. Remember, dear friends, you were warned that unexpected tangents may arise here on Somewhere Between.

Stick around. Relax. You might enjoy yourself.

* * *

“Where are we going for pumpkins this year?” she asked.

It’s a fair question. A fair answer might be that we could get our pumpkins from the bins in front of Home Depot or the super market.

Yeah. Right.

There is something special about the autumnal ritual of visiting an actual pumpkin patch. Many of us look forward to ambling thoughtfully among the sun-dried vines. We carefully tread across the clumpy earth and pick the right pumpkin for us.

Pumpkin hunting – often accompanied by the first appearance of hot cider and flannel – has become such a common part of fall that few people would find it particularly odd to devote an afternoon to finding the perfect gourd. You have to do it right.

Hands-on vegetable collection is not limited to Halloween preparations, though. A lot of people make special trips – day trips and weekend getaways – to farms that open their land for strawberry picking in spring and apple picking in fall.

In a town like Madison, Wisconsin there is no practical reason to do this. Even the strictest eat-local, slow-foodies have amazing access to beautiful produce here. The Dane County Farmer’s Market, for example, boasts the largest “producer-only” farmers’ market in the country. Farmers of all sorts trek to the state’s Capital Square twice weekly to provide Madisonians with more tomatoes, sweet corn, and bell peppers than a person could want or need.

Madison is also a prime location for Community Supported Agriculture (or CSAs). According to the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, forty-two farms and an expanding number of veg-o-philes participate in this “unique social and economic arrangement between local households and farmers who work together to share the responsibility of producing and delivering fresh food.”

Despite all these opportunities for fresh, local, and organic produce, people still jump at the chance to visit a farm and personally select berries and would-be Jack O’ Lanterns. The best part is, even after the cost of gas and stopping for snacks along the way, farm visitors frequently pay an additional price for the mere privilege to labor in the fields and orchards.

Clearly, we want a personal relationship with our produce. And it’s not just about food.

Agro-tourism isn’t the only way we spend time with our veggies. We bring the whole process home with us. We plant gardens. We water, weed, and nurture them. We love our gardens.

Personal vegetable gardens are ubiquitous in this part of the country. Every year, somewhere between Easter and Mother’s Day, garden centers from Indianapolis to Fargo stock up on carrot seeds, onion bulbs, and heirloom tomatoes still in their infancy. And each year, the inventory is snatched up by ambitious gardeners. Even apartment dwellers do their best to find space on the balcony for utility buckets containing some of the saddest, Charlie Brown tomato plants you will ever see.

But why? In a place with so much access to farmers’ markets, CSAs, and even tourist farms, why do so many people cling to their gardens? Why do we open ourselves up to the heartbreak of tent caterpillars and tomato blight, which so ruthlessly put the hurt to gardeners last summer? What is out there in the backyard garden that keeps us coming back for more?

I’m not entirely sure.

For the moment, though, I do know one thing. Fall is only days away and final harvesting is the task at hand. But some gardeners are still keeping an eye on the far corner of the backyard. They are waiting. They’re hoping that their home-grown vines will produce a pumpkin big enough for carving.

You see, truly great gardeners – the heavy weights – are the ones who don’t have to ask where they are going for pumpkins this year.

Photo from the Library of Congress

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this thoughtful look at our favorite time of the year - autumn in wisconsin!