First Steps In Repairing An Urban Dweller’s Relationship With The Earth
I grew up mostly divorced from nature in the sprawling concrete plains of suburbia. The trees I saw were surrounded by fences or sidewalks.
I wasn’t told that meat came from animals, or how. Even once I realized, I just saw advertisements with happy farm animals basking in lush grass and sunshine. The English language refers to animals that aren’t pets as “it”, denying their aliveness, so I didn’t think about it too hard. Even when, much older, I found out about factory farming, I thought it was the exception, not realizing humanity was capable of making such a practice the norm. (What I did after realizing it was.)
I wasn’t told about agricultural polyculture and companion planting, in which a mini-ecosystem of interdependent, co-supporting crops helps each other naturally improve soil quality, improve each others’ growing conditions, and repel pests and weeds. Or how it was largely dismantled by European colonists and replaced with monocropping, which provides short-term yield economy of scale via an ecologically fragile system which replaces natural pest control and nitrogen-fixing symbiotes with pesticides and artificial nitrates.
How do you repair your relationship with something you never grew up knowing? I guess you have to build it from scratch. It can feel awkward and scary as a lifelong urbanite to stumble out into nature. I went camping for the first time when I was 25, and even though we slept on barren wasteland cleared and abandoned by ranchers long ago save for a few thorny shrubs, it really catalyzed my enjoyment of the outdoors.
How do you even begin to try to comprehend growth, harvest, and ecology when all your food comes from a market, divorced from its origins?
I’ve been trying in a small way to understand better by starting in my windowsill.
Growing culinary herbs from seed demands only a little water, sun, and soil, and a little of your time. In return, it gives you so much.
I’ve had many houseplants before, but there is something weirdly special about growing a plant that you eat.
A feeling of abundance. Picking a fresh sprig whenever you want it, and realizing that you needed even less than that sprig to season your dinner. A single plant grown in a yogurt container will probably supply you with more than you could use up on your own, so hopefully you have others to share with. When they start getting too big for their containers, I sometimes have to prune them back and find flavor combinations to turn them into sauces, which is also delightful.
A tangible understanding of the aliveness of food. Watching a new seedling literally double in size within a day. Seeing the leaves droop or perk up quickly in response to your tending. We tend to think of plants as less alive because they don’t walk or speak, but growing one from seed and seeing it furiously unfurl a whole new set of leaves in a day (imagine growing a new nub so quickly as a human!) makes you realize how plants are significantly more active, alive, and responsive than we were really told in school.
Attunement to the process of growth. Observing and feeling the soil for dryness. Noticing one side of the plant isn’t getting enough sun. The fragrance of fresh herbs as you water the soil. Noticing how the soil dries out faster as the plant overgrows its container. Repotting an overgrown plant and marveling at how structurally, efficiently, and thoroughly its root system filled up the pot and holds the soil firmly in place, and tangibly realizing how crucial this ability must be to sustaining many real-life ecosystems.
A feeling of investment. When you grow herbs from seed, you care a lot more about not letting them die on you, and figuring out how to make them as happy and healthy as possible. This is not a feeling I tend to get when I buy a pre-potted herb that’s already been made harvest-ready. I also feel more invested in plants I grow to eat than plants I grow for decoration, even though I’m not growing any actual caloric sources.
An exercise in patience followed by ample reward. It can take a couple weeks for a seedling to get out of the ground, and a couple months to have a harvest-ready plant. This sounds slow, until it’s suddenly not any more. Plants are good at exponential growth. Once you hit the harvest stage, the abundance with which they grow back from pruning is pretty remarkable.
A greater appreciation for all the work your food did to grow for you. A massive bundle of herbs from the grocery store may only cost a dollar or two, but I appreciate them much less than that single sprig I’ve watched magically grow from a seed. In fact, I often even resent the grocery store bundle for being much more than I can use up before it spoils. An herb garden has helped me find more contentment in having less — a powerful counter-proposition to consumption culture.
By harvesting from a plant you have watched grow from seed, you start learning to take exactly what you need. Since herbs are better fresh, there’s no point or benefit in taking more than there’s a specific use for. Abundance comes not from chopping off excess, but rather from investing in the living plant.
This is really not something I ever learned growing up in an environment where all food was packaged and purchased with money, things were hoarded, and it was cheaper to buy certain things in bulk. An herb garden is an extremely small and humble place to start, but having one has helped me start to notice other ways where I purchase things I don’t really need.
I don’t mean to glamourize or exoticize farming, which is hard and strenuous labor which I respect very much and have never had to do for a living. The fact that you can easily grow more herbs (basically, delicious weeds) than you personally need doesn’t mean that actual farming as a profession or for subsistence is easy in any way. But that doesn’t undermine the importance of the contentment and education one can get from growing an edible plant, which is not a native feeling for an urban dweller.
Obligatory hot tips
Your local gardening store should have seeds, although I get fresher and more unusual seeds (like shiso and lemongrass) from Etsy.
I keep my plants alive when traveling via a DIY bottom-watering capillary-action system. I use scrap paracord or rope as a wick to automatically draw up water from a deeper container, although you can also just put the bottom of a pot in a tray of water.
A windowsill herb garden is a great way to use up tin cans or plastic food containers that would otherwise go in the recycling. And giving those containers a second life also builds tangible awareness of consumption culture and all the single-use plastics we are littered with.
Appreciation for Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka, which first introduced me to concepts about interdependent polycropping and picking plants to sustainably suit the landscape rather than shaping the landscape to fit the plants, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (which I stayed up too late reading last night), which expounded on those frameworks with a heaping offering of indigenous & scientific insight, and gave me some words and concepts to describe the feelings I get from plant interdependence.