Guest Post: Gardening Guilt

One of the most important aspects of this blog is engaging my community in the discussion of sustainability, pragmatism, and healthy lifestyle on a budget. In order to hear different voices and perspectives I have asked some peers to contribute their thoughts and experiences. Every few weeks I will feature a guest post discussing issues, sharing experiences, and raising questions on the subject. Message me if you're interested in contributing to the discussion.  - Tatyana

It is the beginning tomato season here in Northern New Mexico. For me, it is a time for great celebration. You see, I love in-season tomatoes. And not the way people “love” chocolate or “love” bacon or whatever other food that can be picked up in good quality at all times... my love for tomatoes is a type of love that you can only have for something you have to wait for and something that is fleeting – that only graces you with its beautiful balance of sweet and acid for three to four weeks in late summer. I love tomatoes so much that if there’s a heaven, I know it’ll just be me, all of my human and animal pals, and a never ending supply of freshly made BLT sandwiches made with sun warmed slabs of tomatoes. 

As a tomato lover, it should come as no surprise that I also grow tomatoes... or, at least, I try. Unfortunately for me, tomatoes are a thirsty, finicky, frustrating, unholy bastard plants. Without the fecundity, or speediness of other garden staples like radishes and zucchini, tomatoes need months of careful tending before they put out even a moderate harvest. They require carefully balanced soil nutrients and pH to fend off blossom rot or blight or any of the other seemingly thousands of diseases they are prone to. They need to be caged, tied up and supported. And they need to be fed (but not too much, because that’s bad too.) 

Really, the only redeeming feature of tomato plants is that they produce tomatoes... 

Importantly, tomatoes also require a gallon or two of water daily to support their shrub like growth (but, again, not too much more because they don't like to stay wet between waterings... because god forbid their soil stay moist overnight. Good grief.) I tried growing tomatoes in containers for a while I lived in DC with low to moderate success. Following that, I tried growing them in the terrible fill dirt around my rental house in Michigan with absolutely no success. This year, I was planning on giving up, surrendering myself to a summer of $6.99/lb heirloom purchases from the Santa Fe farmers market, but then I was given a seedling by a friend and, well, here we go again. Much to my surprise, though, the gifted “Valencia Orange” seedling has grown into a fantastic specimen of a plant. It’s taller than me, with lush green foliage and at least a dozen golf ball sized green tomatoes burgeoning in little clusters of three and four. I’m chalking it up to the dry air and seemingly unlimited sun that comes with living at 7,000 ft2 elevation.

But my newfound tomato success has come with a healthy dose of guilt. Because, if I’m honest with you, my tomato plant is likely one of the most unsustainable facets of my life. 

The high desert climate of Santa Fe is by definition, dry and there is a real worry that in 20 years, many cities in the intermountain west will not have adequate water resources to support their populations. My current rental house doesn’t have any sort of rain barrels installed so most every morning, I find myself cringing as I shove my watering can under the kitchen faucet and fill it up with, with cool, clean potable water. I cringe because I’m asking myself a question I already know the answer to: Does it make sense for me to be using municipal water to grow this tomato when others could be doing it some much more efficiently – with drip irrigation systems and acequia fed water? Spoiler alert—the answer is no. 

At this point, you may be saying, “Jesus H. Christy, Micaela! Just stop watering that dumb plant and get over it!” And you’re probably right... I know better and I have the means to support those produce farmers who can grow the same tomato using a fraction of the water. But I want to argue that there are also significant benefits that I and other gardeners accrue from growing their own small batches of water guzzling tomatoes. 

First and foremost, I like gardening. I like having a reason to poke around in some plants before I settle into my day of computer screens and business suits. I like making friends with the praying mantis that take up annual residence in garden plants. For me, gardening is what the philosopher Albert Borgmann would call a “focal practice”—an act that makes life meaningful because it conveys a greater internal significance than simply growing food. 

And, I know, that sounds so freaking hippy-dippy. But let me explain what this focal practice idea means for me, in the context of my tomato plant: I like experiencing firsthand how finicky that damn plant is because that experience comes with an associative respect for farmers and gardeners that can grow tomatoes well. $6.99/lb may seem like a ton for a quality, organic tomato... but once you try to grow that tomato yourself and quantify the input costs, then you begin to understand that $6.99/lb is a goddamn steal.

So we come to the conversation that is the root (lolz-gardening joke) of so many discussions on sustainability—resource use versus social values. Is the extra water I’m using to grow my tomato justified by the associated sustainability ethic that I gain from growing it? How does that calculus work out for a person who is less inclined to care about water use? Who lives in the upper Midwest? Who can’t afford sustainably grown tomatoes? Who finds gardening a burden rather than a joyful pursuit? 

I only have the answer to the first of these questions. The one that’s about me, my values, my situation. I won’t be growing tomatoes next summer, but I will celebrate all those who decide to.