Gardening on the North Shore is a perpetual test of endurance. Last weekend, while squadrons of black flies circled around me, I dug through the dirt in our gardens to pull out twine-like quack grass roots and give my seeds and seedlings a headstart on the weeds. This time-consuming task must be completed before we can plant the gardens, though the battle against weeds is never won. Quack grass and black flies endure.
Our growing season is short. We never plant our vegetable gardens before Memorial Day, following the tradition of my father, who gardened for decades in Duluth. In most years, cold soils and the likeliehood of late frost makes earlier planting risky. On the other end of the season, the risk of frost returns after Labor Day. Bugs, weeds and old Jack Frost never deterred Dad. I endure them, too. As with most outdoor activities, physical discomfort and weather-related challenges are just part of the game.
Since I was always enlisted to help pout in Dad’s garden, I am programmed to go fishing in April and May, then trade my fishing rod for a garden tiller for a couple of weeks around Memorial Day. To some of my angling friends, this is nothing short of heresy. So be it. They may get in a few extra days of fishing, but they never have garden-fresh vegetables and greens to serve with their catch. Growing up, the line between fishing and gardening was blurred. Our home and most others had a boat and a big garden in the backyard.
Not long ago, I heard someone say gardening was a female pursuit and that male gardeners were somewhat of an oddity. This left me scratching my head, because my father and his brother, as well as both of my grandfathers, were avid gardeners, as were many of the women in our family. To frame this in a modern perspective, you could say gardening was part of our culture. It was taken for granted that the family garden supplied most of our vegetables.
For my father’s generation, this was the way of the world. By the time I was growing up, most folks bought their vegetables at the grocery store. Gardens supplied fresh treats or pretty flowers to compliment suburban landscaping. This was also around the time the term “hobby farm” entered into our language.
Actually, the term “hobby farmer” would have applied to my father as well. He didn’t raise vegetables out of necessity, but because he enjoyed doing so. He also believed homegrown vegetables were better for you than the ones you find at the store. It is fair to say both of those beliefs have now come full circle.
In recent years, the people who keep track of such things have seen growth in backyard gardening. While tough economic times are a likely factor in this surge in gardening interest, it driven more by a growing belief that what you grow yourself is good for you. As knowledge about our chemical-laden food supply becomes more widespread, growing numbers of Americans seek out organic produce or grow their own. As my father would say, the most common chemical additive to the backyard garden is the sweat off your brow.
It is fair to say the renewed interest in gardening is a pathway to other outdoor activities. When you turn over a spadeful of garden soil, you strengthen your connection to the natural world. So it is only natural—pardon the pun—that gardeners become interested in other ways to procure your own food, such as fishing, hunting and foraging for wild edibles.
Recently, I read a mainstream newspaper story about how suburbanites near Washington D.C. are taking up deer hunting. Since many have no experience with hunting, they form small clubs with other like-minded suburbanites so they can learn as they go. These new hunters are not motivated by trophy bucks, spending time with their kids or any of the traditional marketing spins used by the hunting industry. Instead they realize abundant whitetails provide a ready source of healthy, low-fat protein. One man said he became interested in hunting because he was constantly dealing with deer in his garden. He decided those vegetable-loving whitetails looked good enough to eat.
So far, the gardener-turned-hunter remains on the fringe of the hook-n-bullet mainstream, perhaps because such pragmatic folk are unlikely to show much interest in the gadgets, guided trips and camo-clothing that are ecomonic drivers for the hunting industry. Still, their presence is not being entirely ignored. For example, the keynote speaker at the annual conference for the Outdoor Writers of America Association is Hank Shaw, who operates Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (www.honest-food.net), a website devoted to growing and gathering the food you eat. He will be introducing the nation’s outdoor writers to a new, receptive audience for their work.
At a time when some worry about declining participation in hunting and fishing, it is encouraging to see new recruits entering the ranks of hunters and anglers. But these suburban gardneers are picking up shotguns and fishing rods with practical expecations. They are not looking to put a trophy on the wall or boast about how many fish they’ve caught and released. Instead, they seek good, clean food. Hopefully, as they acquire the necessary skills to shoot or catch their dinner, they’ll grow to appreciate environment that provides this bounty of food. As for me, I’m going fishing…after I finish my garden chores.