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How does our garden grow?

By K.W. Oxnard Savannah Morning News As teenagers, my cousin Virginia and I went out to Montana to work on a real cattle ranch for a few months. We slept in a little log cabin by a brook, awoke early, then saddled up for a long day driving the dogies into the Rocky Mountains. Although we were too green to rope any steers, we did move salt blocks into the mountains and herded wayward calves back to the fold on our trusty Western horses. Mine, a strawberry roan named Spree, loved nothing better than to race across the high desert, the wind in her mane. What I remember most about that magical summer, though, was the food. Coming from the Lowcountry, I had not grown up eating a lot of beef and potatoes, the mainstays of the rancher’s diet, and I certainly had never tasted range-fed steak butchered within yards of where I dined. It was delicious: lean but flavorful, with a hint of the sweetgrass for which the ranch was named. The milk was cold, thick and decidedly fresh; we had milked the cow ourselves that very morning. The salad and many of the vegetables came from the kitchen garden, the eggs from the hutch just outside the main house. One day we rode to the edge of an open field, where the rancher’s daughter pointed at a bramble full of huckleberries. We picked buckets of the tiny, tart fruit, then baked enough pies for the whole ranch staff. I never forgot the joys of living off the land, and though I’ve lived a mostly urban life, I’ve sought out local food whenever possible. But besides one summer’s bounty from a community garden plot in Portland, Maine, I’ve not tilled the earth myself, much to my chagrin. So it was with extreme pleasure that my husband and I fulfilled a promise to ourselves and started our first family garden a few weeks back. He’d already built a lovely raised bed, so we merely weeded, added some topsoil, manure and compost – carefully cultivated over the last few months – laid down a recycled weed barrier, then plopped in our modest croplets. One cherry tomato, because the kids love them. Some hearty broccoli plants to welcome autumn’s chill. A bell pepper for salads and fajitas. And a few herbs for us chefs. The first thing we said as we looked over our handiwork, shared beer in hand, is, “What else can we raise ourselves?” It’s a question many American families are asking these days. With the economy’s vital signs still weak, jobs scarce and home budgets strained, it makes all the sense in the world to take advantage of the assets at hand – namely, the earth, the sun and the rain. According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million American households planted vegetable gardens in 2009, an increase of 19 percent over 2008 – which was 10 percent higher than in 2007. Some are going farther, keeping laying hens for eggs, bees for honey, goats for milk and pigs for, well, bacon and ham. And these aren’t just people in the sticks. Several friends, both inside the Savannah city limits and in gated communities around Chatham County, are doing some combination of all of these back-to-the-land activities (sorry, SCPD – my lips are sealed). In fact, Savannah lags behind uber-urban New York City, which legalized urban beekeeping last year and turns a blind eye to chickens and other barnyard animals – within reason. There are so many reasons to start growing at least a fraction of your own food. If buying farmer’s market produce reduces your food-miles, raising it in the backyard brings your carbon footprint down to zero. It teaches your kids where their food really comes from, getting them excited about fresh vegetables – no mean feat. Health benefits include moderate exercise when planting, weeding and reaping the harvest; more fresh produce and clean protein in one’s diet; and fresh air and sunshine for vitamin D, which some doctors fear we get too little of. If your efforts take, you may even save money in the process, given the high cost of organic, local food. My favorite, though, is the spiritual element. Master gardeners know that you can carefully map out your plot, nourish the soil and tend your little darlings with care. But one brief hailstorm, a freak early frost or an infestation of beetles and slugs can undo the best laid plans. Gardening requires patience (I can always use a refresher course), flexibility, faith and most of all, the understanding that, ultimately, what comes out of the land is a gift. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. With my husband diving deep into beekeeping books, and me coveting my pal’s heirloom hens, we may not have to shop for presents at all this Christmas. Honey and quiche, anyone? K.W. Oxnard lives and writes in Savannah.

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