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Garden Harvest: How Much Is Enough?

A photo of Shannon SaiaSummer is a time of giving.

Sharing the bounty is one of my favorite things about a garden – not because of zucchini-fatigue or because I can’t possibly eat all of that watermelon – but because I have something to give. Giving from the garden is giving of oneself. When you give from a garden you give from a position of plenty. And really feeling and living in and from plenty is not always so easy to do.

How do we know when we have enough? How do we know when we have plenty?

Enough implies measurement. It suggests that you have an amount or a level in mind and that you meet that amount or level. Enough is having the right amount of dollars to pay your rent or your mortgage. Enough is rigid and non-negotiable. It contains an element of fear. You have enough – or you don’t.

But plenty suggests that you have nothing to fear. It is a bounty that is beyond measurement; with plenty, measurement is not needed.

The question occurs to me: Can you have plenty while not having enough?

I can think of at least two ways. The first one is: don’t measure things that don’t require measurement. The second one is: keep a garden.

We’ve all heard the adage, you are what you eat. But I would suggest that the truth of this statement is bigger than just food. We are what we watch. We are what we read and hear. We are the people we hang around with. There is a great machine engulfing all of us that is working very hard to get us to consume, to want more, to believe we need more, and to get more every day. The world around us is constantly trying to frighten us. It takes an effort to shut it all out. But it’s a worthwhile effort. Because the machine of commerce obscures what’s important in life.

I do not consider myself particularly religious, and yet over the course of this past year I’ve experienced a growing sense of wonder that is not without a certain spiritual content. Planting and sprouting seeds; observing the miracle of life prevailing against all reasonable expectations; visiting a nearby farm and wandering amongst animals some of whom eventually ended up on my table have all made me thankful for meals in a way that I have never been before. This is not so much because of the work that I’ve put into these meals as it is because of the extent to which things happened that I did not do. My thankfulness is not self-congratulatory but directed towards something operating above and beyond myself. Learning about the ubiquity of yeast in the air gave me a sense of wild freedom and possibility – how close it is within our power to turn a few simple ingredients into bread! The alchemy of lacto-fermentation offered me a glimpse into the creative alchemy that goes on inside of all of us. I have been constantly reminded that man is a maker; that our lives and our means of sustenance are paradoxically both inevitable and tenuous and should never be taken for granted. I have a developing understanding not only of how much planning and activity and preservation it may take to feed my family through the winter (I don't think I'm even coming close!), but also of the importance of growing and eating and enjoying today’s food today. A closer contact with nature is a constant reminder that I don’t know what may happen tomorrow or the next day. But today I am well-sheltered and well-fed, and to a great extent that makes me rich, and I am thankful.

It calls to mind a line which has been rattling around in my head a lot lately – "give us this day our daily bread". Not enough bread for the rest of the week or month; not an assurance that we’ll still have bread this time next year, but our daily bread.

Surely enough has to start with enough for today.

And if I have enough for tomorrow too – well, perhaps that means that I have plenty.

There are many advantages to having a garden. There is the exercise; the opportunity to be outdoors; the healthier food; the satisfaction of producing it oneself. There is the sense of communing with nature and with something that is bigger, and stronger and greater, and longer-lasting than us. I love all of these things, but I don’t think that any of them are the best thing about having a garden. I think that the greatest gift that a garden can give us – even a weedy, overgrown, not always well-tended or well-realized garden like mine – is that if you put in the effort – some days it seems that if you put in any effort at all – it eventually reaches a state of plenty.

Even prior to having a garden, I rarely bought tomatoes. I rarely bought green beans. I never bought zucchini or squash. Or turnips. Or rutabaga. I’ve never even seen a kohlrabi in the grocery store. But we eat these things now because we can grow them. We eat them because they are there in abundance.

A grocery list is another form of measurement. It’s a declaration that there are some things that we absolutely have to have, and if we do not have them, then there is a lack in our lives, a niggling aggravation that must be overcome. Granted there are some basic things that we have to buy, but I have found over the past few years that my grocery list has dwindled. So have my grocery bills.

A recent article in Grit by fellow blogger Paul Gardener gave a wonderful and inspiring accounting of just how much we can save by gardening. I’ve been tempted to take stock of my efforts this way. You see, for a long time I've been obsessed with measurement; I've been worried about having enough. I'm a compulsive checkbook balancer; a tireless list-maker. One eye is always so firmly fixed on the horizon that I often don't see everything that's right in front of me. I went into the present gardening season determined to do better than last year; in particular, I set some pretty hefty goals for providing certain foods for my family through the winter. Along these lines of thought, as the present garden season began to ramp up, months before I read that article in Grit, I considered buying a scale. I wanted to be able to see just how much progress I was making. I wanted to be able to demonstrate to myself that I was growing more, and preserving more, than last year. I wanted to be able to determine and document just how much would be enough. And I wanted to grow enough.

But lately I’ve decided that I’m not going to do that.

I don’t want to weigh my produce. I don’t want to keep track of what I spend in the garden – in money or in time. I would spend that money and time somewhere anyway. I think that if I start trying to frame the garden in the language of investment then I might lose the sensation of getting something for nothing. If I begin to measure, then I will inevitably begin to think in terms of enough. And why would I want to do that?

When I already have plenty.

nebraska dave
7/29/2010 4:38:03 PM

@Drew, my comment here was strictly about my gardening experiences. I'm with Shannon, they were not intended to make you feel in any way that you should not be looking at the accomplishments of your labor. Your garden is totally different than mine. I quite frankly was amazed at all the preservation that you have done for this year and it's only half over. There are times when I have to stop and reflect on the things that I've accomplished to encourage myself that it's all worth it. I think you went through one of those times and needed to take account to stay encouraged. My meger preservation attempts are only to satisfy the challange of it all within me and to keep me busy in my retirement years. To be honest you are quite an inspiration to me just to be able to read about all the things you do. Your video blogs refected your joy about living life and infected me with that same joy every time I watched one. I know this is a busy time of the year but I for one hope that when the year begins to wind down you will be able to make more of them.

s.m.r. saia
7/28/2010 5:36:04 PM

Thank you all so much for coming by and for reading, and for your kind words. I really appreciate it. I'm glad that you liked this post. @Drew - Coincidentally, you just did a post tallying what your family has been able to accomplish so far this season, and I hope that you don't think that this post was in any way a response to that, because it wasn't. I've been thinking about this for a few weeks now, since returning from vacation, which is one of the reasons that it's been so long since I've posted anything here. I had some trouble working out my thoughts. I have nothing but respect and admiration for everything that you've done this season, and you're an inspiration to me. I am freezing squash and beans, and putting up tomatoes, and dehydrating peppers around here like crazy; my thoughts on not counting and on thier relationship to the idea of plenty were written as much to myself as to anyone who might read it, as I continue to struggle to develop a philosophical disposition that I can live with. The garden has been a wonderful teacher in this regard. I think counting smiles is a GREAT idea.

cindy murphy
7/28/2010 9:59:47 AM

Shannon, I always enjoy your posts, but this one, along with your ill-fated eggplant love affair, tops the list. It made me take a moment or two to take stock of my own gardens. Serious vegetable gardeners would cringe at the way I garden. The only thing under control in my vegetable garden are the weeds - yes, I am one of those deranged individuals who loves to weed. My ornamental gardens receive much more of my time and labor, but still some, I'm sure, would consider them only a semi-controlled chaos; I tend to like it that way. Gardens of any variety provide us with removal of the world's intensity for the period of time we spend in them. The pleasure I get - and others get - from my gardens cannot be calculated in tangible measurements. I know though, that it is plenty. And that is enough.

7/27/2010 1:34:36 PM

Great post Shannon. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I agree, it seems, with the collective voice. I do measure some things and I do keep track of what we harvest. But I only do it because I am amazed at what we are able to produce here on our idle acres. If we suddenly harvested only 1/4 of what we do now I would be alarmed, yes, but I wouldn't be heart broken. For me it is all in the process and not the product. We farm because we can. We can get outside and work and experience the Earth God gave us first hand. We are a spiritual couple and for us gardening and our bounty is all about stewardship. We love giving away as much as we love eating. And the beauty is that we find when we give with a joyful heart and don't worry about how it will effect our overall take our harvest just multiplies. It is amazing and yet so simple at the same time. I did recently add a column to my garden spreadsheet though. It is simply called "No. of smiles"

7/27/2010 11:55:54 AM

Shannon, Love this post you said it so well that the pure joy of gardening just can't be measured. Your garden sounds a bit (okay a lot) like me - neglected this year but you know they still produce so well and it's so fun to stroll out back and look at the fruits of our labor. vickie

nebraska dave
7/27/2010 10:56:39 AM

@Shannon, I agree with you whole heartedly. There are some things in life that should be done just for the sheer pleasure of it. Gardening to me is one of those things. I don’t do it to feed the family through out the rest of the year, or to sell at roadside markets, or even to give away. I do it because it brings me pleasure to go out in the garden and see things that have grown. It’s the adventure of change. Each year has different challenges whether it is bugs, weather, or animals. It’s always different, new, fresh, and interesting to me. Right now my challenge is to overcome the farmer row crop mentality and be creative in the flower beds. Wow, is that ever difficult, but I’m working on it. Gardening is breaking me out of my structured orderly life style if I let it. I certainly hope that gardening never becomes just a set of weights, number of jars, or dollars saved because then the pleasure will be gone. Gardening does have a spiritual aspect to it. It reminds us of the life cycle that we all are a part of. There’s life and death, beginning and end, youth and maturity, and struggles to survive from all the influences that come upon us from the world. Our focus really does need to be on today because we can’t change the past and tomorrow will get here soon enough. Have a great day and keep on gardening.

mountain woman
7/27/2010 7:33:22 AM

Shannon, So beautiful and eloquent and speaks to me in many ways. Through the death of my husband, I have learned to live in the moment and to be thankful for each hour I have. Although problems will always arise, there is so much beauty in life itself that I never look at the negative. I garden because I enjoy it and I'm learning. It's not even a means of saving money because there are only two of us and we don't eat all that much. So much focus can be put on saving money that the pure pleasure of the moment is sapped from the experience. Then, as you said, it's all about the tally of dollars spent to output. There is joy in planting, in working in the dirt and watching our labors bear fruit (or not)and feeling connected to the land. Life provides plenty but in unexpected ways. A journey; not a destination. Thank you for sharing your beautiful insights.