Gardens In Bloom

20 May 2005

“I see the kitchen garden as being both a means and a universal metaphor for a healthier, tastier, and more sustainable way of eating,” Roger Doiron of Scarborough, Maine, explains. Parents disappointed with the offerings in supermarkets might decide to put in their own garden. Doctors might suggest that obese patients get some exercise and nourishment from a kitchen vegetable box. Overstressed urbanites might find some peace while weeding.

In December 2003, Doiron founded Kitchen Gardeners International, a sort of political and intellectual clearinghouse for folks who grow their own. (Think of it as Slow Food meets back-to-the-land.) The group’s goal is simple: to bring people into closer contact with their food by celebrating home-grown, home-cooked foods in their many international forms. Think of it as a cross between Slow Food and the back-to-the-land movement.

But Doiron, previously head of the European office of Friends of the Earth, has his work cut out for him. Back in 1900, Americans raised 30 percent of their own food. Today, the share stands at a meager 1.5 percent.

Luckily, Kitchen Gardeners depends on the notion that small doesn’t necessarily mean insignificant. “A miniature salad garden is a really good way to start,” Doiron says, suggesting a “cut-and-come-again” mix of greens that might yield four or so crops in a season.

“You just need to break a little bit of ground,” Doiron says. He harbors no illusions about the scale of his challenge. “When you’re talking about moving the Krafts, Unilevers, the whole convenience food mentality, that involves moving some pretty heavy objects. It will take a lot of little kitchen gardens to do that.”

For now, Kitchen Gardeners‚ activities are low-budget and largely virtual: an electronic newsletter, articles on gardening and cooking on the web, links to relevant news from around the world. The group acquired the web domain, www.eatrealfood.org http://www.eatrealfood.org, which features an upbeat flash animation showing a precocious girl skipping through a Red Riding Hood-esque world where avoids persistent junk food solicitations in favor of her homegrown carrots, peas, and other delights.

Shortly after the launch of the site, the number of people who have signed up for the newsletter jumped past 1,000, with over 30 countries on all five continents represented. An agricultural extension worker in Lusaka, Zambia, checks out the site “to be abreast with Agriculture Development,” and finds the information useful for both her work and home garden. One urbanite in São Paolo, Brazil, said that Kitchen Gardeners inspired her to learn about “native vegetables, fruits, the climates where they can grow, and how to cook them.”

Doiron is banking on publicity for the inaugural Kitchen Garden Day, planned for the third Saturday in August to coincide with the height of harvest period in the northern hemisphere. And while some people have greeted the idea with skepticism (“international day fatigue”), Doiron sees it as more than symbolic. February is National Snack Food month, for instance. “If they have a whole month for promoting their products, then we can at least have a day,” Doiron says.

When Doiron isn’t managing this fledgling organization, he is honing his own gardening skills and doing what he can to include his children in backyard work. Doiron notes that gardening is a skill that largely gets passed person to person, and that the majority of people in an urban nation like the United States probably have little exposure to making pickles, planting seeds, weeding, or even the most basic garden chores.

In the fall of 2003, Doiron built a small greenhouse and made his first batch of sauerkraut, which his family enjoyed for the better part of the winter. “We tend to think of the kitchen garden as this brief explosion of vegetables,” Doiron says, who sees foods that keep well, like sauerkraut and tomato sauce, as the logical extension of gardening.

He also planted some mache and claytonia in his greenhouse, planning to pick these hardy salad greens throughout the winter. Several weeks later, he concluded that the plants had succumbed, yet another horticultural victim claimed by the New England winter. But he was hopeful about the spring. It seemed he had stumbled upon another metaphor for his work. Looking to the greenhouse, as the days got longer and warmer, Doiron was pleasantly surprised to see the same greens resurrected. “What I thought was simply dead has snapped back to life,” he says.

Brian Halweil is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and also a freelance food and farming writer living on the East End of Long Island

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