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Celt's Garden - Gardening as Self-Unemployment Insurance

The single mother in New York City told her story to the NY Times: She's a self-employed writer, illustrator and marketing materials designer. She lives modestly with her two half grown boys in a tiny apartment. "Sometimes, my clients pay late. Sometimes, they don't pay at all." She relies on the food bank to get through the month, especially that last grim week. All of which just highlights how difficult subsistence activities are in a tiny apartment in the middle of NYC, dependent on cash transactions for everything. She needs a garden.

Gardening is self-unemployment insurance. Self-employed people soon learn to cope with a bumpy cash flow, mostly by not running out and spending the sparse checks all at once. Coping with a bumpy food flow is another matter. One way is the unfortunate single mother's path of food bank and food stamps. Another is to grow your own, and can, pickle, ferment, root-cellar and jam up whatever excess you can grow, trade, scrounge, glean or buy wholesale. I'm just here to tell you, a meal of homegrown organic potatoes, baked winter squash, sauteed kale with garlic and onions out of the winter garden, a slice of homemade bread and a glass of apple cider is far superior to the leftover dreck of the industrial food system.

The food you grow and make yourself is so much better, better than you can buy without spending a whole lot of money, far better than what could be purchased with the sparse cash. The cost is time. All that work takes time. The skills of cooking from scratch, gardening, brewing, baking, preserving and making do take years to master. The harvest season is just a scramble, trying to meet work commitments in the formal economy and taking on another 20 hour a week part time job for six weeks in August and September. That's the traditional rhythm, and in all this hoopla about "eating local", we forget that carpenters in Cyprus used to down their tools and go into the vineyards and orchards to harvest grapes, olives and lemons. We just aren't used to organizing our time like that.

We have to slowly creep along, rebuilding our local food systems and divisions of labor. I missed the grape harvest and the wine making season because I was busy with potatoes and dry beans. In a traditional society, I've have it set up a year in advance. Then I could concentrate on growing the luscious, delicious heirloom potatoes and trade for the wine. 

Gardening, particularly gardening in our tricky maritime climate, takes a while to find the rhythm. My Army buddy Bob called me up one day and I asked him about that garden his wife used to put in every year. His wife had lost interest in it. He didn't feel the need to take it up himself. And here's the punch line. Bob tells me, "We're doing OK. I survived three rounds of layoffs because of what I have to offer. If things get really bad, then I'll take up gardening." I hardly had the heart to tell him, Bob, that's just brilliant, I understand that you would rather be engaged in typical middle class leisure activities than grubbing in the dirt all summer and putting up U-pick jam. Really, I understand, there are days I feel that way myself. All you have to do is when things do get really bad, then just back up three years and take up gardening.

I will be teaching "Subsistence Gardening" on November 18, 2012. The class covers growing energy crops such as potatoes, field corn and dry beans, winter gardening and how to process your harvest. Register through Whatcom Folk School. 

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