Archive for April 3rd, 2009

Bread AND Roses

Sharon April 3rd, 2009

A reader who signs herself “Grandma Pansy” and who gave me permission to post this wonderful letter asked this:

I wanted to ask your advice about something.  For the last 14 years, my husband and I have shared in a wonderful project - a garden.  We’ve been building soil and tending our plants together.  Since we both retired three years ago, the old half acre garden has sprawled across another full acre of our property.  We sell at farmer’s markets, and donate to the local shelter, as well as sharing with our neighbors.  It has been the best gift to our marriage and made us happier together than we ever were - when Roger hit middle age, he told me he’d rather have perennials than a Ferrari, and watch me dig in compost than get a new girlfriend, and I’ve been glowing with happiness ever since (we’ve been married 31 years). 

What’s the problem?  Well, that acre and a half is all flowers.  We have a full acre of gorgeous perennial gardens, and a bit less than a half acre of annual flowers that we cut and sell at market as our retirement hobby (we were both music teachers, and we still give a few lessons to stretch the pensions too).  The gardens are beautiful, they are our babies (our daughter is grown and lives across the country), and our passion.  We do make some crab apple jelly, and give the ornamental quinces to a friend of ours, but there’ s no food in this garden, really just flowers.  I read what you write and agree that we’re facing tough times.  And we’ve talked about it, and that’s the right thing to do, we’ll start pulling out the peonies and irises and putting in blueberries, and stop growing zinnias and tuberoses and start growing potatoes and eggplant.  But we love our flowers so much, and we love our property as it is, and it is awfully hard to imagine letting the whole thing go.  What do you advise us to do?  And do you think our marriage will survive eggplant?

 Oh, Gosh, poor Roger and Grandma Pansy, worrying that food-obsessed blog chick is going to make them give up their gardens and their marriage.  I’m so sorry to have given that impression!  Let me start by assuring you that I think flowers have a major place in the future, and by thanking you for the stunning pictures.

Where?  Well, first of all, there’s the fact that they are cheap thrill.  A bouquet of basic summer annuals costs a few bucks at a farmer’s market - even when I was a desperately poor college student, I sometimes splurged on flowers.  We all need beauty to get through our lives and our days, and even getting poorer, there will probably be a market for flowers for a long, long time to come.  People in tough times need comfort and beauty and reminders of good things.  Flowers do all that.

In fact, when we ran our CSA, flowers were a major component, and they probably got us more customers than the vegetables did.  I admit, I never did anything as fussy as tuberoses - besides some perennials, my bouquets were full of wildflowers and easy to grow annuals like zinnias, rudbeckia, statice, larkspur, cosmos and sweet peas, but people seemed to like them.  And I admit, I used to save the process of arranging the flowers for the last step before delivery, because I enjoyed it so much! 

When Eric’s grandparents were alive, I promised to keep their vases full all summer, and I loved making sure they had nature inside even if walking too far outside wasn’t possible for them.  I could see how much pleasure it gave them, and I think there’s no question that they were one of the great pleasures of their lives - to feel that their house was beautiful, to smell the scent of flowers - these were basic sensual pleasures that could be enjoyed even when many other joys had passed.  There are reasons we send flowers to the mourning and the sick - because they are reminder of life and hope and beauty.

Moreover, my own faith has the idea of “Hiddur Mitzvah” which means that if you are going to do a good deed for the glory of G-d, you should do it as beautifully as possible.  I try to make sure that I have flowers on the table every Sabbath, whether dried flowers from last fall or fresh.  As more and more of us have to give up the idea that we can live “decorator” lives, we will be turning towards the beauties we can have - and flowers are everywhere and can be everywhere.

I also plant some flowering plants to help attract pollinators to my plants - I’ve been undercropping cucumbers with alyssum for years, for example, and it seems to improve my yields.  I grow sweet peas as a nitrogen fixing crop, since I saved a lot of seed a few years ago - they make a gorgeous, sprawling cover for a bed, and after I cut all I want, I cut them down and till them in.

Moreover, the reality is that people need to make a living and flowers often pay better than food.  This, I think, is somewhat unfortunate, but it is the reality - flowers can be a great transitional move for people looking to make some money growing, or establish a small market garden - today’s celosia is tomorrow’s cabbage.

Does that mean they shouldn’t grow any practical crops?  Well, I’d tend to bet that they already do.  Daylily petals are delicious.  So are sunflower, poppy and flax seeds.  Many, many ornamental plants are also medicinal or have dye or fiber uses.  They may already have the beginnings of quite a good medicinal herb garden.

Instead of wholesale giving up the peonies and dumping the iris, what I’d suggest is a much more moderate course.  Look into edible landscaping - consider adding in plants that are both ornamental and food, fiber, dye or medicine producing.  The blueberries are a great idea - they turn flaming red in the autumn and are gorgeous.  Some species of viburnum are very tasty.  And I’ve never been clear on why people don’t grow eggplant, colored chard and okra ornamentally - they are stunning, as are many hot pepper plants and asparagus ferns.  You don’t have to keep everythings separated - mixing these plants into annual and perennial plantings will keep the basic structures of your gardens intact and allow you to gradually add food plants.

 But I’d hate to see you give up the flowers - right now I’ve got a flat of marigolds and calendula, one of zinnias, another of perennials, one of sweet peas and still one more of alyssum and poppies in my house, so I’m certainly no one to talk.   The future is going to be about food - but with bread must come roses.