Cleveland, OH

Gardening Doesn't Have to be Fancy, and Produce Doesn't Need to be Perfect

Kathryn Dillon

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“The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.” — Michael Pollan

There’s nothing like a homegrown tomato. The flavor explodes on your tongue in a burst of juiciness, bringing to mind memories of so many summers past.

Tomatoes bring a lot of us to gardening in the first place. Maybe our grocery store doesn’t sell local produce, even in the summer.

Maybe we love farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture subscriptions (CSAs), but it’s difficult to get to one or requires too much commitment. (Side note - we are blessed to have amazing farmer's markets and CSAs available to us in Northeast Ohio. My article should by no means indicate otherwise!)

Or perhaps we have fond memories of our family’s garden when we were children, plucking tomatoes from the vine, eagerly sinking our teeth into them, and letting the sun-warmed juice run down our chins.

Tomatoes led my husband and me to attempt container gardening a couple of years ago, and I’m hoping to repeat the effort in 2021.

Believe me, it isn’t always what you’d call a pretty sight.

Container gardening in the city

When we bought our house, in one of Cleveland’s inner suburbs, we inherited a brick-walled back yard referred to in the early 1900s blueprints as “the gardens”.

By the time we moved in four years ago, what had once been lush beds and velvety grass had turned, over decades, to a web of roots and dust, akin (in my mind) to the secret, abandoned garden in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s book.

It will take time and toil to get our yard into the proper condition for in-ground planting, or even raised beds.

It would be so very easy to say “until it’s perfect, we won’t do anything”. But we thought about those summer tomatoes, ordered some seeds, and bought some five-gallon buckets.

As seems to be typical for us, we went overboard.

What started as “let’s grow a few tomatoes” turned into a yard overflowing with mismatched containers — peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, bush beans, carrots, radishes, green onions, lettuce, spinach, sweet and Genovese basil, dill, parsley, catnip for the kitties, and mini sunflowers.

Oh, and the tomatoes of course — but not a few. Five different types, and 58 plants in total!

You may not realize it, but five-gallon buckets are expensive, at least when you need close to a hundred of them. My husband eventually put his foot down, and headed to the garage to see what else we had that was usable.

We planted in old (thoroughly cleaned) cat litter boxes. We planted in those giant plastic tubs that cat litter comes in. We planted in a neon green bucket decorated with skulls that had once been used as a trick-or-treat container.

We planted in anything we could scrounge up that was even remotely large enough. We even planted the mini sunflowers in an old toilet tank hidden in a corner of the garage because we hadn't taken it out to the curb yet. The chipmunks found those barely-sprouted sunflower seeds irresistible and promptly dug them up to snack on, but at least we tried.

I sighed, looking around at our hideous garden, imagining what the people next door (with their perfectly manicured lawn and flower beds) must think. And then I laughed.

Where did we get this idea that our gardens, our vegetables, and our lives, have to be perfect?

Homegrown vegetables aren’t flawless

According to farmer David Masumoto, “If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we’d be very lonely.”

Somewhere along the way, we‘ve become accustomed to the unmarred produce inundating our supermarkets. It’s positively unnatural. Tomatoes are picked when green to avoid bruising on their cross-country trips, and barely ripen at all before we attempt to eat them. Do we even know what a tomato is supposed to taste like anymore?

For that matter, do we know what beautifully imperfect lives should LOOK like anymore? Or have we gone down the rabbit hole of perfectly curated Facebook families, and only sharing "our best selves" with our friends? Can we draw a parallel here?

Unless we regularly visit our local farmer’s markets, we’ve forgotten that fruits and vegetables aren’t really supposed to be about looking perfect. They’re supposed to taste like, well, fruits and vegetables.

Our obsession with produce perfection has contributed to an enormous food waste problem.

America does not eat 40% of its food, according to a 2017 National Resources Defense Council report.

“We leave entire fields unharvested, reject produce solely for cosmetic reasons, throw out anything past or even close to its ‘sell by’ date, inundate restaurant patrons with massive portions, and let absurd amounts of food rot in the back of our fridges.”

More than 50% of food waste occurs before the food even makes it to our homes, and vegetables comprise 19% of the food waste in the United States. (NRDC, 2017)

Organizations globally are stepping up to help promote “cosmetically challenged” produce, beginning with the launch of the Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables campaign from French retailer Intermarche, and entering the American market in July 2015 via Imperfect Produce.

Food-service companies and schools are joining the trend, realizing there’s a cost savings to be had. These programs are increasing consumer awareness and helping to mitigate the amount of produce going to waste.

Of course, they’re just normalizing what small farmers and home gardeners already know.

Gardens don’t have to be beautiful

Just as produce doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfectly delicious, gardens don’t have to be gorgeous to be functional, or pleasing to the senses.

Looking out the window at our outlandish container garden brought a smile to my face. For a little while, we had more tomatoes than we knew what to do with. Our meals in the latter part of summer, that year, were largely produce-based. It was too hot to cook in our unairconditioned home anyway.

While setting up our containers, my back ached from hauling 40-pound bags of soil and mixing dirt and compost with a shovel. I felt like I had soil under my fingernails for days afterward, despite wearing gardening gloves and taking numerous showers.

My arms and legs were dotted with mosquito bites from planting in the evening, trying to beat a fast-approaching storm. (I’ve never met anyone mosquitoes love as much as me.)

But I remember those long weekend afternoons, the feeling of the dirt, the aroma of the tomato plants (inextricably linked with memories of my father and my childhood garden), the hot sun blazing in the late-spring sky. And I have absolutely no regrets.

I want to do it again, this year.

Once I'm done working in the dirt, I’ll be no prettier than the makeshift container garden I've constructed. But like my garden, I’ll be functional. I'll serve my purpose.

I'll relish my sore muscles because I'll be able to see what their effort has brought us.

Gardening and living

I am not an expert gardener. My experience with gardening before our last container stint, in fact, was limited to pulling weeds with my dad when I was a kid, and a brief stint on a landscaping crew the first couple of summers I was in college.

But I noticed, as we embarked on that planting adventure, that gardening lends itself well to life lessons, especially when it comes to things like expectations and perfection.

Here are a few:

Don’t wait until the stars align to make your move.

Don’t be afraid of hard work.

Don’t expect perfection, from yourself or others.

Beauty is subjective and relative.

Sometimes, you DO reap what you sow.

Sometimes you don’t see the fruits of your labor immediately.

It never ever hurts to get outside for a bit.

Connect with nature to remind yourself you’re part of a larger whole.

Knowing where your food comes from is a really good thing.

Relationships, like gardens, require hard work, but they’re worth it.

“A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.” — Liberty Hyde Bailey

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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