Farming & gardening Nature Veggie matters

Hard Truths about Farming & Gardening

Spotty grape leaf 1

A few weeks ago we attended a screening of a documentary, “Growing Cities,” about the rise in urban farming across America. From rooftops to empty lots, from New York to Oregon, people are growing their own food (as humanity did for millennia until relatively recently on the evolutionary scale). The evening, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque at the Skarsgard Farms warehouse, attracted a modest crowd of locals with coolers in hand, brats for the open grill, and cash for Skarsgard’s own hard cider. The rain came down and lightning lit the sky. It was a pleasant night in the big open room beneath the warehouse awning.

But a little something nagged me. Just a little bit.

I’ve watched hours upon hours of food documentaries through the years, and I’m always eager for the next one. Urban farming: it’s a good thing. Right? We want more of it. Right?

Yes, of course we do. But in order for that to happen, I think we need a little more truth.

Just a little bit.

Farming isn’t easy, and neither is gardening. Yet I find myself leaving so many of these documentaries feeling upbeat and energetic, ready to conquer the raised beds (or, rather, smooth talk them into abundant production). But then I start digging in the dirt and I find an endless tangle of bindweed. I start inspecting our grape leaves, and I find this:


Spotty grape leaf 2

I look a little further, and I find fruit that’s starting to show an ugly side…

Spotty grapes 2

…and strange little creatures huddled on the underparts of our pepper leaves (does anyone know what these are??? I haven’t been able to ID them).

Pepper bugs

Every day in the dirt is a battle with and against nature. We are rewarded with tomatoes (when they actually survive) and peppers (when they actually grow), bundles of basil (fingers crossed, two years in a row), and oodles of mint (people call it a weed but I welcome it). But day in and day out, the work grinds. There are at times more failures than successes. It’s a lot like journalism that way.

I wish more of these new-future-of-food documentaries would be a little more honest about the grueling effort it takes to grow a single head of lettuce—let alone enough to fill the family pantry. Farming isn’t all sunshine and roses, gardening isn’t all peaches and cream. Many people give up, and I don’t blame them. They’re tired. The Earth is tired. (That, in fact, is exactly what Shan farmers told us during our trek through the hills there: They love farming but the land is tired, the insects are thriving, and consequently farmers are responding with more and more pesticides.)

I’m not trying to be a downer or a whiner. I just think we all need to appreciate more the turmoil that happens behind the scenes… in the many hours between those lovely shots of planting seeds and the joyous smiles of farmers reaping great harvests.

It’s hard. If you know anyone who tries to grow food on a big or small scale, give that person a hug or a handshake today. And praise the little creatures that help them along, like this predator found on a stalk of lovage:

Praying mantis 2

(By the way, it turns out our grapes apparently were thirsty, despite abundant rain and ritual watering. Even a downpour that floods the surface of our yard won’t necessarily reach the extremely long taproots that grapes and other plants have developed.)

5 replies on “Hard Truths about Farming & Gardening”

we grew tons of food on our corner lot in DC, but we were bedeviled by a family of field mice who feasted on our tomatoes and eggplant and there was very little we could do about it. My best advice: compost,p compost, compost. healthy plants are much more resistant to disease and pests. Now that we’ve moved to upstate New York, it’s deer, voles, rabbits and ground hogs. A constant battle. We are more focused on livestock now. But animals also get sick and die from any number of causes.

I don’t think food documentaries are the place to find stories about this. Have you ever seen “The Real Dirt On Farmer John”? One of my all-time favorites–a real departure from the norm.

Our biggest pests are the neighborhood peacocks, which don’t actually go for the plants but squash them in the process of hunting (and lounging). When we returned from our last trip to Asia, three new cats in the yard (one mother, two kittens) had decided to use our (then empty) beds as a litter box. We put a quick stop to that with a chicken-wire fence & gate around the entire area. No deer here. An occasional rabbit, raccoon, squirrel and skunk. I know we have mice but I’ve never seen evidence of them in the gardens. We compost everything we can.
Haven’t seen “The Real Dirt…” Will have to do that.

Hello Karen,

We are expecting a hug & a handshake from you and Jerry soon. Thank you for pointing out the difficulties in growing produce for home and for sale. It is tough work, but the rewards are tremendous. Also, knowing all of the ingredients that go into your ingredient is VIP in the world of pollution, pesticides, modifications, etc. Again, wonderful insight Karen.

The funny looking beetles that eat holes in your leaves look a lot like turtles, don’t they? They also have hard shells, so carful crushing them. Name? Clavate tortoise beetle. Have fun!


Compost, compost, compost, then mulch, mulch, mulch. That’s one fancy beetle. You’re absolutely right that raising enough food to eat is a lot of work. Before trains and highways enabled supermarkets, most people knew about the hard work involved and tried their best to get away from the farms. The pests – vertebrate, invertebrate – and diseases and bad weather and climate change have always been everywhere, just waiting for a little inattention on our part. Farming and gardening are very new (in earth terms) human inventions, and all those beetles and mantises evolved way before cherry tomatoes and sweet corn were on the scene. Anyway, you may want to take the time for a Master Gardener course offered by a county extension office. The course here (Santa Clara County) is taught by U.C. professors and agricultural experts, and leaves no illusions about the difficulties involved in gardening.

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