When A Fool Makes A Garden, It Does Not Follow That Gardening is Foolish


Animals are admittedly trickier to manage, because they are sentient beings with actual opinions about the conditions in which they live.  I failed with chickens in my city yard.  They weren’t happy and neither were the neighbors.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can be done.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t think I could do it, with a few adjustments.

Gardeners who actually like gardening learn from their mistakes, not just inflate them for mock-heroic effect.

Here is one more thing I think about you anti-garden writers:  You’re cheesy.  You persuade your audience to do the wrong thing–to keep wasting their backyards, rather than growing a few organic tomatoes or peppers for the kids.  To keep buying stuff from New Zealand that they could produce themselves by barely breaking a sweat. 

Nobody’s demanding that you proselytize for urban farming, but don’t lead people astray with a lie: the idea that growing vegetables is hard.  It’s only hard for people doing entirely artificial experiments to meet an editorial deadline.  A real journalist would have figured that out and admitted it. 


  1. No one really likes going to the dentist, but we know that it’s good for us. At least that’s what the experts tell us. What if we erased the line between us and the dentist? I’m going to propose that I do all the dental work on my family for a year. Imagine the comedic possibilities. Think I can sell that idea to a magazine?

  2. I was hoping you guys would catch wind of this. My big fear was that it WOULD turn someone off to gardening and make it look too difficult. When you do it like this guy did, with not much knowledge, a hurried and self-imposed timeline, and little support from people who do have the knowledge to garden and farm responsibly… well, his results were predictable.

    And the Carroll Gardens you speak of is something that would be good for NYC…and for those that realize this and champion integrating more gardens into the city, this was a step backwards. And I am sure locavores did not appreciate the press, either.

    I think many websites and blogs have quickly mentioned what was so wrong about this project – I hope their collective voices outshine the exposure that New York Magazine provided.

  3. And I love your idea, too, Peter. I cannot wait for the TV show, the book, the licensed characters, the childrens’ dental operation kit and the eventual movie based on real events in your life.

  4. Peter, I hope that McDonald’s soon recognizes your potential as cultural icon.

    But my point is that vegetable gardening is not dentistry. It’s easy peasy. I do it, while actually earning half the household income, managing three children, and watching more TV than is good for me.

    What is comparable to dentistry is deciding to feed yourself entirely from 800 square feet of urban backyard and to raise animals for meat in this inadequate space.

    The Path to Freedom people in Pasadena have actually worked this stuff out–after years, I’m assuming, of reading, talking, and thinking seriously about it.

    Only a jerk would argue that attempting such a thing with no knowledge whatsoever over the course of a single summer is a test of anything. The only thing Howard demonstrated was his own towering ignorance–plus, the towering ignorance of the editors who gave him the magazine cover.

  5. So… let me get a handle on this please… are you people writing about… well… uh…


    People actually grow FOOD in their gardens?????


    It follows then that this stuff is actually PICKED and then COOKED somehow? Like… at home? Growing food and cooking it at home?

    Now THAT is a novel idea.

  6. Yep, I read the article right to the end – cringing. No mention of salad vegetables or herbs,or green beans and zucchini, those extravagently productive plants – the guy obviously needs to change his diet and the weight loss could only be good.
    Well at least he and his wife learned the effort that goes into producing food, and maybe they will have more respect for all those Mexican workers toiling for poor pay in the truck gardens and fruit orchards, and for the incredible cheapness of the food they buy.
    What happened to saying grace before meals – a moment to be thankful for and respectful of the food on our plates.

  7. This is one of the earliest backlashes I’ve ever seen.

    Um … was there a widespread movement? Did anything actually happen?

    Thank god the advances of feminism (such as they were) happened before the digital age.

  8. Wow, I just got my Internet connection back up and things are already hopping here at the Rant. (I must say I LOVE it when my reasonable, good-citizen Rant partners are [email protected]!!)
    I checked the New York Mag site to see if comments are allowed – NOT! So I sent them the link and suggested they GET a comment feature so they could start a conversation, at least. Hey, we bloggers have to take feedback and respond to it. Why not the MSM (and W, for that matter)?

  9. I can’t believe that he never mentions that it might take oh….more than one season to learn how to best grow, raise, or manage things.

  10. “But I did learn something about food: Unless you really know what you’re doing, raising it is miserable, soul-crushing work.”

    You have got to be fucking kidding me.

    If he gets a book deal out of this, I’m going to go bury MYSELF in the backyard.

    He dug a five foot deep pit just to plant some potatoes and corn? I’m not buying it. In fact, somebody ought to get over to Brooklyn and make sure the whole thing isn’t made up.
    Anybody who makes gardening sound so much more tortuous than it actually is might have a little James Frey thing going.

    (A Million Little Seeds? Followed by a tearful confession on Martha Stewart? “In order to get through the experience of gardening, I thought of myself as being tougher than I was and badder than I was—and it helped me cope,” he tells an unforgiving Martha.)

  11. I do not think the Green Acre article in the New York Magazine was all that bad. The man went overboard that is for sure, but he did some research, did some things right and produced some food for himself in his own yard. In the process he lost 29 pounds and learned what fresh food tastes like. I doubt that his weight loss was solely from his diet after the fifteenth of August. He spent the summer working remember.

    Amy had just finished deriding the lazy, work phobic gardener in the previous post. This guy got in there and got dirty.

    It is not as Easy Peasy as Michelle would have us believe. I have seen plenty of fools who thought it was Easy Peasy and the pitiful results they got. There is a reason that millions of dollars is spent on research at land grant universities in agricultural colleges. There is a reason there are dozens of professional specialties in agricultural, forestry and horticultural fields. The environment is a complex living system. The more you know the better your chances of success.

    The average American at this point in time is so disconnected from nature and the environment they have no clue where to even begin to grow a tomato for themselves. Sure once you know the basics it isn’t nuclear science and you don’t need special equipment like centrifuges and aluminum tubes, but without the basics and some sweat equity there is a good chance you will end up with pitiful results.

    The single most misguided notion that plagues this article is the idea that farmers are completely self sufficient and grow and produce everything they need. The earliest pioneers who settled this country took food staples with them and had trading routes for more supplies to supplement what they could grow, hunt or forage. As communities became established people, including all the farmers specialized in what they grew or produced. They bought and sold stuff. It’s called an economy stupid. Even now in more primitive indigenous populations there is specialization within a community. No person or family produces everything they need to survive.

    Complete food independence is for the desperate and a horse’s ass.

    It would not surprise me if Manny Howard continues to grow some of his own food in a more scaled back and realistic fashion. That is a good thing.

  12. You’re right Christopher–it’s the premise of the experiment that’s the problem. Of course he was going to fail, trying to feed himself and his family entirely from that miniscule yard.

    But I still maintain that backyard vegetable gardening get a bad rap as arduous and tricky. In my experience, it is a joy, as long as you can accept some failures with your successes. I’m not talking about commercial farming–I’m talking about growing a nice salad, which is something almost anybody can do.

    That takes nothing but manure, sun, and water, and possibly a little lime, but I have never tested the pH of my soil–and often forget the lime. Pick the bugs off, weed when you need to–and you will have more food than you know what to do with.

  13. For you and many others like you you Michele (correct spelling) it is a supreme joy and easy peasy. Think for how many folks the idea of work, sweat, dirt and bugs is one of the circles of hell.

  14. He planted CORN as part of attempting to feed his family out of his back yard, but didn’t plant zukes or salad greens? Corn is a major pain in the ass, takes tons of space, and, way more often than not, results in hardly anything edible. At least, that’s my experience. And, that’s the key there—experience. The writer had none, decided to do this “stunt” and then had the gall to write about how soul-crushingly miserable gardening is. We all start out as new gardeners. We all make mistakes and learn better ways of doing things. What we don’t do is publish articles in magazines telling everyone how hard gardening is after our very first season of doing it. Give me a break. And people wonder why I choose to read blogs instead of magazines….

  15. It really *is* easy. Even for people who are busy and not super-knowledgeable.

    Thanks to the miracle of self-watering containers, I managed to grow two tomato plants, a banana pepper, and some basil all with no bugs to deal with (container gardening is cool like that) and only having to step outside with a watering can for 5 minutes once a day. I got a generous harvest of tomatoes and peppers and didn’t even come close to breaking a sweat.

  16. oh, and, rereading my comment above, I should clarify—growing corn is a pain in the ass, compared to growing stuff like salad greens and zukes. You get more food per square foot with greens or zukes, and the birds and squirrels are less likely to devour the harvest before you do. I grow corn every year, and wonder every year why I bothered 🙂

  17. While we’re talking about really, really bad reporting about gardening let’s not forget the NYTimes ridiculous take on Highgrove – that organic gardening is SO much more work. We ranted about their report here on August 23 and September 5.

  18. In the recent New Yorker food issue, there was a piece by by Adam Gopnik exploring the locavore possibilities of NYC: could you construct a meal from food grown exclusively within the five boroughs? Some ardent proponents of local food found Gopnik’s take also condescending and shallow. This stems perhaps from the premise of pitting the local food concept against the biggest city in the country. Everyone naturally assumes there is no way that New Yorkers could feed themselves if they were forced to rely solely on their own devices. That would be the comical premise.

    Being someone who is trying to turn his corner lot in Washington, D.C. into an edible landscape, but with no pretenses to feeding my family from it exclusively, 365 days a year, I can attest that is not something one does overnight. It is also not something appreciated by all our neighbors. Since we do not have a back yard, we do our vegetable gardening in the front yard. Most of the neighbors have grass, rose bushes, petunias–the usual. So we are automatically outlaws.

    However, feeding oneself from one’s own plot is not a ridiculous notion. I know of a garden merchant in Takoma Park, MD, (one of Susan’s neighbors) who is seriously involved in just such a project, trying to feed his family from his own garden. They are very aggressive about planting sweet potatoes. And that, I would say, is probably the biggest area of concern. While corn might be “a pain in the ass” it does pack the calories, whereas lettuce and carrots and broccoli supply very little. If you are to be self-sustaining, you have to have the requisite output of calories, which has to be in some form of grain or tuber, or in the form of four-legged protein.

    But also the reason serious locavores are being viewed as the newest form of “treehugger” on the block is that people generally know, deep down, that we have already sold our souls to industrial agriculture. The ethic of self-reliance, do-it-yourself, grow your own is now just a romantic remnant from a previous generation. It does not apply to the generation of irony.

    Yet, all we have to do is look a few miles south, to Cuba for instance, to see how a population can become self-reliant (perhaps like the Victory Garden days of World War II?) when it is forced to do so. One wonders if that day is somewhere over the horizon for us Americans, or whether we will also be fat, happy and always certain that the week’s food is just a short drive away in the SUV.

  19. Ed, there is nothing ridiculous about wanting to feed yourself. Right now, I have a 100 saffron crocus in a box awaiting planting, because, well, I’d rather grow it than buy it.

    What is ridiculous is pretending that it’s possible to feed a family of 4 exclusively out of 800 square feet when you’ve never picked up a shovel before–and are so disconnected from the animals you’re raising for meat, you can’t even tell when they are suffering.

  20. MJ — you’re totally correct and I would also add spoiled. Just because this guy’s veg didn’t grow perfectly in his first year — too bad. Do you homework and try again. I do every year — I’m still not good with veg (thank goodness for the farmer’s market)– but I’m solid in the herb and pepper department.

    Don’t try to put people off trying to garden (in whatever form) because your plan was ill conceived and rather foolish.

  21. I guess I was not quite so bothered by the soul-crushing remark when it is taken in context.

    “But I did learn something about food: UNLESS YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING, raising it is miserable, soul-crushing work. Eating food fresh from the farm, on the other hand, is delightful.”

    Who isn’t a bit crushed when all their efforts, however misguided are for naught?

  22. Having now read the article in question, I think much of what has been written here bears little resemblance. The piece is full of pathos–I can totally relate. It sounds to me like he was extremely successful with his vegetables. Hard to believe he is really a novice. And all the false starts and blunders are just part of the learning curve. I don’t find it implausible that a family of four could live off a plot this size for a month, if everything were extremely well planned and managed. What surprised me most, and made me most envious, is that Brooklyn allows chickens and rabbits in the back yard. I would love to do that here, a mile from the White House, but then my wife and certainly my neighbors really would kill me.

    Many of you are being entirely too hard on the guy. If he kept this up, in a year or two we’d be celebrating his accomplishments, just like the women from the Botanical Garden were. Viva los locavores!

  23. Christopher,

    I agree that Manny rolled up his sleeves, learned to appreciate his food a bit more, and trimmed a bit of flab off of his waist. He put in a LOT of time and sweat. I would not call him lazy, and would easily trust him for many tasks that would cause one to break a sweat.

    But he set himself up for the ‘all for naught’ experience. He went into this project a bit unresearched and thought that he would just learn as he went. I don’t envy anyone who finds themselves in such a spot. He had a chance to reach out to some fantastic organizations (like Value-Added or Guerilla Gardens) that would most likely have been very excited to help him learn – and could use the good exposure. And to begin a real farm still may not have been easy as pie, but maybe not soul-crushing, either. As someone who grew up on a chicken farm, I could have told him immediately to not have any tiny ducks/chickens allowed where children walk – you will most certainly have one crushed until either the chicks are bigger or the children have been properly shown how to watch under their feet as the walk.

    I have done a bit of gardening where I did not really know what I was doing, and it did not crush my soul nor did I find it miserable. And many others may also make mistakes on manageable gardening or farming projects and also not feel that way. Making mistakes will always be a part of the process to learn, but to say that we can expect to feel as he did is a sentiment I don’t agree with.

    I hope he takes what he learned and tries again next year with better results…

  24. This is another case of a so-called intelligent person showing a determined lack of common sense. It’s very sad that animals had to suffer as a result of his inabilities. I certainly don’t blame his wife for boycotting this venture – it’s one thing to plan and build something properly, and quite another to go off half-cocked with energy but no expertise.

    “The rabbits kept themselves cool in the summer heat by kicking over their water dishes.”

    Why didn’t he give them a water bottle instead of a bowl? And no wonder the rabbits wouldn’t breed in the small cages – they don’t breed if they don’t have enough room. It is terrible that the lives of these innocent animals ended tragically. (I wonder if he even bothered to tell his plan to the supplying rabbit breeder.)

    “Eggs had not been part of the original plan…”

    Um, why? And why didn’t this guy just consider going vegetarian for his month? You could easily live off eggs for a month, with a fair amount of variety in meals. Sure, meat is delicious and enjoyable, but one part of eating locally is eating what is available and affordable. Not having meat isn’t that big a sacrifice. It’s about realistic expectations, not producing every tiny thing the supermarket supplies.

    I hope that he does keep gardening, though, and grows normal vegetables for normal summer eating. Maybe he’ll even do some preserving to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the winter, as many normal backyard gardeners do. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from gardening and being more self sufficient, but I would discourage them from delusions of grandeur.

    I certainly hope this person does not end up with a book deal. He’s not the next Michael Pollan, nor William Alexander.

  25. I read the entire article and it doesn’t upset me as much as it does you guys. It was a foolhardy stab at self-sustenance, but the guy learned a lot from his experiences. When the reader reads about his experiences, they learn, too.

    I’ve been working on an edible landscape in my backyard for a couple years now. I’d love to be able to provide 3/4 of my produce from that yard but I’m not there yet. Although he says it in different words, I too developed a HUGE admiration and appreciation for the store of knowledge our forebears must have had. Growing your own food with a minimum of losses is tough. Just like his “hurricane”, nature can throw you a curve at any time. Then your harvest prognostications can go right out the window.

    Do I think it’s soul-crushing work? No, but then I don’t have to live off my patch. I love gardening and even if I have disappointments, it just makes me want to observe and learn. Truly, a garden is a great place to learn science. The scientific method is key to becoming a better gardener.

    I think the sort of people who would be turned off of gardening by that New York article are the sort of people who weren’t that attracted to doing it in the first place. I think others will pick up on the parts of the article when he talks about how satisfying it was to harvest food from his yard (even the crop destruction of the hurricane didn’t deter him long) and how satisfying and tasty it was to eat it.

  26. The only time gardening is difficult is when you do something by “wingin’ it” rather than by learning how it should be done first.

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