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Grow Food Not Lawns

Excerpt from the forthcoming book, Paleo Family: Raising Natural Kids in an Unnatural World.

There was a meme going around recently that mocked gardeners. It sarcastically stated that, “Growing your own tomatoes really is the best way to devote three months of your life to save $2.17.” Har har har.

The joke’s on whoever made that meme because if you think that there’s no difference between the red, flavorless organic matter that you get at your local grocery produce aisle and the delicious drops of edible sunshine you pull from your garden, you’re missing out on life. Gardening is certainly time consuming but if you haven’t tasted a beautifully ripe red cherry tomato directly off the vine, you haven’t tasted a tomato.

And flavor isn’t the only benefit you get from gardening. Here are just some of the benefits of growing your own food:

Garden Produce is More Nutritious

The food you grow is much more nutritious as it can grow up to the exact time of consumption and can avoid long refrigerated travel or other preservative measures. You can control the amount of pesticides used also, if any. Many store-bought fruits and vegetables come laced with unnatural chemicals designed to kill wouldbe food thieves. As we saw in previous parts, these chemicals can have deleterious effects on gut flora and lead to any number of health issues.

Avoiding pesticides, herbicides, and ground contaminants is most important for children. The herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) has been touted as safe and just “minimally toxic” by the manufacturer, but it’s hard to believe that a chemical so effective at killing plant life could be harmless to animals, including humans. A study in Entropy states that glyphosate residues, found in most commonly consumed foods in the Western diet courtesy of sugar, corn, soy and wheat, “enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease.”

There is also a worrisome correlation between the use of glyphosate and developmental issues. As Dr. Nancy Swanson explains, “The endocrine disrupting properties [of glyphosate] also lead to neurological disorders (learning disabilities (LD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder). Those most susceptible are children and the elderly.”

The causation hasn’t been established, but it stands to reason that we don’t know all of the negative side effects of these killing chemicals on our health. We recommend avoiding them as much as possible and growing your own food gives you the ability to limit exposure to them.

DIY Groceries Can Save You Money

Ramping up a garden can be much more expensive than buying the equivalent food from the store considering all the necessary tools, soil, and watering equipment. You’ll also have to buy the initial seeds or starts from a nursery, which aren’t cheap. But, after initial expenditures, producing your own food can be very cost effective. A pouch of several dozen seeds can cost as little as a dollar and once you get producing you can create your own seeds and keep the cycle going ad infinitum.

We had to purchase sweet potato slips last year online. They weren’t cheap, but we saved some of the potatoes and will create our own slips this year from last year’s scraps. We’ve regrown tomatoes, green onion, banana, and pumpkin from our own food. Each plant has a different method of regeneration, but they all regenerate and facilitating that can keep your urban farm abundant and bountiful in perpetuity.

Soil and fertilizer can be costly, but if you compost, you should be able to generate much of the soil you need yourself. There are also natural fertilizers from banana peels to egg shells to weeds that will feed your plants without having to buy new chemicals every season.

Depending on how much you work on it, you can save upwards of $500 a season by growing your own food. One household in Pasadena, California (documented on urbanhomestead.org) produces 7,000 pounds of food a year, which comes out to about 90 percent of their consumption. The well-fed family eat on just $2 a day, growing their own vegetables, eggs, and honey. All of this on about a tenth of an acre (~4,000 square feet).

And if you think it’s just Californians who can venture into this type of production, think again. Curtis Stone of theurbanfarmer.co is the proprietor of a quarter-acre urban farm that produces $100,000 worth of food a year in the frozen tundra of BC, Canada. He utilizes a pretty elaborate greenhouse network with a hothouse, but he produces year round, even during the bleak and snowy winters.

Farming is Exercise

The health benefits of working the land aren’t limited to the added nutrition. If you’ve ever worked the earth with a hoe or shovel, you know that it’s decent exercise. In general, gardening is a moderate to heavy physical activity and has been shown to produce beneficial changes in total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and systolic blood pressure.

Farming and gardening is a full-body activity and you will use your arms and legs. If you haven’t done it in a while or ever, you will also feel it in your back.

This level of activity—even if just for 2.5 hours a week has been shown to reduce the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death, according to the CDC. Gardening can literally be vital.

 

Growing Your Own Food Can Be Mentally Beneficial

One of the most sought-after goals in modern life is mental health. It turns out that something considered by some to be work—gardening—is actually beneficial in this regard.

Research has recently shown that gardening for 30 minutes was dramatically more effective in reducing stress than indoor reading. And mood was fully restored after digging in the dirt, while it deteriorated while reading. These psychological benefits can be explained by the therapeutic nature of gardening tasks but also the effect of being outside surrounded in a green space (explained in detail later). Contact with natural bacteria in the dirt may also benefit mood.

Another psychological benefit of growing food may be a little more difficult to quantify. In a classic study, researchers set out to determine whether giving nursing home residents more control in their lives would improve their mental health. Half of the test group were told they could rearrange their furniture, choose movies they wanted to watch, and what type of plant they wanted to grow. These participants were told that they would be responsible for watering and pruning their plant. The other half of the test group were not given any control and they were given a plant as well but told that the staff would take care of the plant.

Researchers found that the residents who were given the responsibility for their plant ended up happier, more active, and more alert. Surprisingly, a follow-up study by the same researchers found that the mortality of the plant pruner group was 50 percent lower than their lower responsibility counterparts. Having responsibility and control in their lives—specifically with regard to taking care of a plant—gave them a purpose and that resulted in longer, happier lives.

This is backed up by a more recent study that showed elderly people with a greater purpose in life were much less likely to die for any cause during the study. Having a purpose in life helps to prolong that life—even if the purpose is as seemingly insignificant as taking care of a plant.

I can attest to this effect from personal experience. Growing food isn’t easy and it takes a lot of time, but nurturing a plant from seed to harvest is one of the most rewarding experience you can have. I’ve struggled through failed crops from pests, cold weather, and fungus, but each failure has taught me more about the process and the education alone made it well worth the effort. It’s not as important as raising a child or inventing a new technology, but it does give meaning to one’s life—if it’s nothing more than having the ability to say you made that delicious tomato yourself.

Backyard Food Is More Sustainable

We’re not Malthusians by any stretch of the imagination but we realize that the Earth does have a finite amount of land and resources. Gardening and urban farming are ways to optimize land use to a more productive and sustainable framework. Instead of expending time, energy, and resources like fresh water on grass, gardening focuses one’s resources on something much more beneficial: food.

When you grow your own food, you’re also more likely to savor it and not waste. Wasting any food bugs me, but when I grow it myself, I try to use every bit that I can. I’ve eaten bananas all my life but had no idea the plant came with beautiful edible flowers with sweet nectar before the fruit grows. I’ve also eaten my fair share of carrots, but hadn’t thought of mixing in carrot greens until I grew my own and looked into the nutritional value of all that roughage (carrot greens are not poisonous as rumor has it).

What’s more is that pretty much everyone can do it. You don’t need an acre of California land to grow your own food. We have a very small plot in a traditional neighborhood development (designed to reduce the footprint). Most of our food comes from a 4×4 raised bed and yet we’re able to grow a considerable amount of our own food—enough to harvest something from the farm every couple days throughout the year. Granted, we’re in a temperate 8b climate zone so we don’t need a greenhouse, but anyone can grow during the summer. And with a small greenhouse or an indoor system, any house or apartment can become an urban microfarm.

Growing Food Educates Children

Our kids are pretty excited about everything, but one thing gets them revved up more than anything: harvesting their own food. My toddlers have fun picking blueberries, strawberries, and tomatoes, and they flip out when I let them pull up a carrot or sweet potato.

Through composting, my kids have learned basic biology and the circle of life. Through planting and watering, they’ve learned patience. My three-year-old has even accepted the fact that if he forgoes destroying a given plant, it will eventually grow delicious food for us. And, perhaps most important, through the whole process, they’ve learned that food doesn’t come from the supermarket; it comes from the earth. I’d like to think that growing our own food has even made them less wasteful, but that may just be wishful thinking as we could feed a small village with the amount of food we scrape off the floor after every meal.

Kids love to learn. And what’s more, it’s not difficult to teach them. The simplest things can fascinate and there are a lot of simple things in the garden: from bugs to plants to all the dirt. There is an endless supply of education material just out the back door.

 

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