At the end of last year, during my brief stint in a book club, I had the pleasure of reading Barbara Kingsolver's fab book
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life. The book chronicles Kingsolver's attempt to raise and eat only foods that she and her family raised themselves, or were locally grown. In addition, it also talks about the farming industry, the commercialization of food, where our food comes from, the resources that are used to get it to markets, and the nutritional ramifications of food commerce. It really gave me a lot to think about. It made me take a long hard look at my relationship with food, and how much I take for granted.

The book points out how fruits and vegetables being available at the grocery store year-round has made us all lose touch with our agricultural roots (no pun intended). Which is totally true. Sure, I know that oranges are in season in the middle of winter (since we have our own trees), and that Fall is typically "harvest time." But I had no idea when, say, onions should be planted or harvested. I honestly didn't have any idea. I am a typical big city American consumer. Totally out of touch with how nature works, except in the modern, commercialized way. That's not how it should be.

The first chapter of the book talks about asparagus. Now, I've seen asparagus throughout my life. I knew what it looked like, even though I admit I didn't actually eat it regularly until I was an adult. But until I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I really didn't know much about asparagus. I didn't know that the asparagus we see in grocery stores, the stuff we actually eat, is just ONE DAY'S GROWTH. It's the first little sprout that comes up out of the ground. Asparagus has to be harvested every day. Or else the little triangular bits at the top of the spear start to become little branches. Asparagus, if it's left alone, becomes a lovely ferny little tree with red berries on it. I literally had no idea. I also didn't know that asparagus is really an investment, at least in terms of time. You have to leave asparagus alone for three years after it's planted. You cannot harvest it, because the plant will get depressed and die. It needs time to grow and become well established. Even after it's well established, it's recommended that you only harvest asparagus for a few weeks. Then you need to leave the plant alone to do its thing. It needs to become the ferny thing in order to be happy and thrive. Three years of tending to asparagus before you get anything edible out of it. Now that's dedication!

I admit I'm out of touch with gardening and the concept of food "seasons." In the book, Barbara Kingsolver has a picture of something she calls The Vegetannual. It's an illustration that basically depicts a hypothetical plant that provides all plant foods, from roots to fruits, in sequence. First it puts out fresh leaves, then flowers, then seeds and fruits; in the fall, it plumps up the bigger fruits and stores sugars in its roots for winter. So the first vegetables in the spring will be greens - lettuce, kale, etc - herbs, and garlic; followed by the early stems such as rhubarb, asparagus, and green onions. Then come the "flowers," which include head lettuces, broccoli, and cauliflower. Mid-summer, the seeds and fruits will show up: peas, green beans, raspberries and strawberries, summer squash, tomatoes, cucumbers. Late summer brings the bigger fruits, such as melons, peppers, and corn. Fall is the time for apples, winter squashes, pumpkins, and the tubers such as potatoes and yams. Of course, I'm sure there are adjustments for Southern California weather. But those are the Vegetannal basics.

The main thing I took from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is that food has an ethical component to it that I had never really considered. In summer, the oranges are the grocery store are flown in from Australia. Think of all the money and resources it takes to get them here. And, sadly, think of how foods are now raised - often genetically engineered - not so much to have excellent taste, but just to look good at the market and to endure the shipping process. What is that doing to us from a nutritional standpoint? And from a global standpoint? As I endeavor to be have a "greener" lifestyle, I have to consider these things. So, I am trying to eat foods that are in season. I'm trying to start my own garden. And I'm trying to buy more locally rasied foods. These are small changes. But I think they're steps in the right direction!

All my life, I have been fascinated with gardens. Back when I was a kid (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth), there was this segment on Sesame Street with a song about gardening. And it showed a family all going into the garden to plant and work. I still remember the words to the song and everything: "Come into the garden, it's the early month of May. Come into the garden. If you come, you'll want to stay. Keep the bunnies from the lettuce, keep the crows from the corn. You've got to work hard when you work on a farm..." Anyway, I just loved the idea of growing things. I also got it into my head that the only time to successfully plant anything was in May, but that's another story. I had several failed attempts at gardening over the years. I just didn't know anything about how it's done. I thought you just put seeds in the ground, watered them, and maybe pulled a few weeds. I still don't know much more than that, to tell you the truth.

But this year, I have big plans! I have a yard of my own, and while it's not very big, I know it's big enough to grow at least a few things. We have a lot of old plants to remove first, and a fence to build. So, even though it's not like I'm ready to put seeds in the ground, I'm starting to formulate my plans.

First order of business (aside from cleaning the yard and building cute raised beds) is to get an idea of what I'd like to grow. I have a number of different vegetables I'd like to grow, like carrots, spinach, asparagus, cucumbers, tomatoes, maybe celery - though obviously they're not all in season at the same time. And I don't even know if they all will grow in SoCal or not! Since I'm entirely new to gardening, I'm going to try out the square foot method:Square foot gardening has been recommended as a good way for beginning gardeners to figure out how things work. I don't know if that's true. But I'm going to give it a try!

In addition to vegetables, I really want to grow some of my own herbs. I already have a lovely rosemary bush in the back yard, and I love going out and clipping fresh rosemary to use in my cooking. I made this goat cheese and rosemary omelet for breakfast one day. Seriously - SO good, I almost wanted to cry. In addition to the rosemary, I'd really like to have some basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley. I'd be okay if I just grew some basil my first year. Loves me some basil. I also love how there are strawberry plants used as a border in that herb garden photo. I wouldn't mind having some berries, myself.

The garden isn't going to all be about food, though. I also really want to have some flowers. I love the idea of having a vase on my table with fresh flowers from the garden. My mom's next door neighbor has sweet peas growing along the fence line, and several times she bought over big bouquets of them for us (since they had to be cut regularly in order to keep growing). They smelled lovely and were so pretty. I want a piece of that action. I also love the look of having flowers in containers. I have this really clear memory of driving downtown to a meeting one time, and we passed this house that was kind of run down and shabby looking. But all around the front door were these different kinds of pots overflowing with brightly colored flowers. It was so pretty, I wished I could have had a picture of it. I love the idea of having a bunch of bright flowers outside my door like that. So, add flowers to the list of my "green ambitions."

The challenge now? To learn how to make it happen, and then to find the time to make it happen. Neither one will be very quick and easy, but ultimately rewarding if it pans out. I have a friends who are gardeners who can give me tips, and there are community classes as well. Stay tuned for my progress!