Knowing where your food comes from revives your sense of well-being
“Is that fun for you?” My friends gave me direct stares as I shared what had been a perfect summer, in my estimation. The season involved building a 20×20 foot farm-grade greenhouse, planting it, and tending to my six raised beds with veggies all summer long.
“It’s cheaper than therapy,” I quipped, “And yes, I love it. It brings me life.”
In a world where a 20-minute trip to the grocery store can have your basket full of produce from all over the world, why choose to garden? Why spend hours and hours of my summer at home, tending a vegetable garden, in a valley so many folks move to so they can be out of their houses, recreating in beautiful mountains and streams? I turned down social invites, some friends insisting I’ve been gardening enough and must come out with them. Others just stopped by my house unannounced to pick me up and take me out.
I wouldn’t mind dating again, I think to myself. Then I spent all weekend alone, playing in the soil.
Gardening was a Forgotten Delight
I have always loved to nurture and cultivate. As a child, I helped in the gardens my parents planted. When I was older, I began planting and tending to them myself. I was always excited to see each spring green sprout, new leaf, bright bud, and growing veggie.
Agriculture was huge where I grew up. The soil and seasons were ideal for growing food. When I moved out on my own, I always had something growing somewhere: tomatoes, basil, bush beans, peas. I volunteered at botanical gardens and began gathering information on other methods of gardening like composting, no-till, organic, etc. Then, I married and moved to a town in the mountains.
I went from 2,200 feet in elevation to 7,700 feet. I experienced hard freezes in June, frost by September, and soil I wasn’t used to working in. For years, I struggled to grow things. Plants grew and began to fruit, then freeze solid before anything could be harvested. I finally let it fall by the wayside. The pull of three children, depression, and general despondency with the failure of my previous attempts at growing discouraged me from trying any further.
I Surrounded Myself with Local Food First
More life passed and I found myself rediscovering myself as a newly divorced woman. I’d lost myself somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten so many things that had brought me joy, and I went on a quest to find those things again. Then COVID-19 happened.
Fear of food shortages swept over the US, and my isolated little town was no different. The local farmers, whose previous clientele had often been the farmer’s markets that catered to the wealthy tourists, pulled together and started CSAs: community-supported agriculture. They provided the community with locally grown food at affordable prices.
I joined a CSA run by local farmer friends. Then, I took my kids to their farm that summer. I watched with delight as my boys ate tomatoes off the vine and discovered garter snakes and other fun creepy crawlies in the sprawling greenhouses that grew most of the food that supplied the CSA. An idea began to form; I’d get a kit and build my own greenhouse. We’d have some food security and I’d be able to play in the dirt.
Deciding to Build a Greenhouse
By that time, I’d recognized gardening as a forgotten delight. I had high-altitude hardy flowers growing everywhere and knew I needed to try veggie gardening again. My farm friends told me to scrap the idea of an expensive greenhouse kit. They volunteered to help me build a farm-grade greenhouse, and construction began this spring, finishing up in early summer.
Building my own greenhouse saved a considerable amount of money and enabled me to have a far larger one than I would’ve otherwise been able to afford in a kit. I was also able to build a sturdier construction with cement post holes that anchored the greenhouse to the ground. We also bent steel beams for the arc instead of plastic beams. This gave the greenhouse far more weight against the gale-force winds that can hit the valley. The entire frame is covered with plastic which can be changed every 3-4 years with relative ease, the entire process taking about half a day with two people working on it. The act of building the 20×20 foot greenhouse took a Herculean effort on my part. I’d never done manual labor that difficult.
Actually Building a Greenhouse
My friend Matt, who farms locally, helped me get materials. One afternoon, he came over and we began measuring and marking. When we finished, there were twenty bright orange spots in my backyard.
Matt casually said, “Now dig twenty post holes two feet deep. Let me know when you’re done.”
I tried hiring someone to do that difficult chore. I offered good money; no one would touch the task. My soil goes about two inches deep before hitting river rock after river rock.
“Well, I can do this, no big deal,” I told myself. I grabbed a shovel and found it completely useless at moving the rocks. In the end, I discovered that beating the area with a rock bar, scooping the loosened debris out by hand, and repeating that over and over again, gaining just two to three inches of ground at a time, was the most effective way to dig the twenty post holes.
My hands ached in a way I’d never experienced. It took over three weeks to dig all the holes and two trips to the acupuncturist to get my hands to stop shooting with pain.
Cement work and framing followed the post-hole digging, some of which I had help with and some I did myself. Often Matt would come over, show me how to do the next task, and then leave with the instructions to reach out if I needed help. It was the most empowering experience. I look to the greenhouse with a great deal of satisfaction because I know that I got help when needed, but mostly it was my labor that was poured into each aspect of its construction.
Getting Fertile Soil Into the Greenhouse
After greenhouse construction came the foundation of any garden: the soil. I had little experience cultivating soil and I knew I needed help. My soil consists of dry, rocky dirt that doesn’t hold moisture well.
I spent time researching many different types of soil enrichment and settled on Korean Natural Farming. It’s an old practice in its country of origin, but brand new to the U.S. I began watching YouTube videos from the main spokesperson and teacher of KNF in the U.S, Chris Trump, and learned many things that helped get me started. And no, he’s no relation to the 45th American president.
I learned how to propagate IMOs, or indigenous microorganisms, from healthy soil in my area. This practice enriches the soil so that store-bought pesticides, herbicides, and the like are not needed. Instead, the soil is alive with the bacteria, fungi, and other critters that help break down and give plants what they need to absorb nutrients from the soil.
Learning About and Practicing Korean Natural Farming
With concerns of how long modern farming practices can endure before soil turns to dust and we are left with a food crisis on our hands, natural farming practices like Korean Natural Farming have been of great interest to me. I have been delighted with the results!
With the help of KNF, I completely rehabilitated garden beds that even weeds had been hesitant to grow in. These beds now produce more food than I can keep up with. The beauty of KNF is that every year the microorganisms get stronger, the soil gets enriched with life; plants flourish. It brings me closer to my plants, I feel more attuned with what is going on, and I’m better able to address potential problems.
Anyone will tell you working out can help manage depression and anxiety. But did you know working in the dirt causes you to inhale the microbes in the soil which can stimulate serotonin production, making you feel more relaxed and happy? It’s like we’re meant to spend some time in the dirt. I personally found this to be the case. The heaviness that I had for years began to lift and true joy made an appearance again. Then came the satisfaction of eating what I was growing, turning greens into pesto, stir-frys of squash and onion greens with fresh basil, cucumbers into tangy pickles that my boys consumed with excitement.
My ultimate goal is to produce all my vegetables for the entire year, learn more about food preservation, soil health, Korean Natural Farming, high altitude gardening, and ultimately share it with anyone else who’s interested in doing the same. Maybe knowing where your food comes from brings you comfort. Sticking it to the radically controlling corporate food system one meal at a time can be satisfying. That fresh garden flavor is, without a doubt, a great reason.
Or maybe, like me, you’re rediscovering your joy in the simple act of combining soil, seeds, water, and sunshine to pull you into the light again.
Heidi is a mother, gardener, homesteader, and hairdresser residing in Gunnison, Colorado. When she's not knees deep in greenhouse soil, you can find her at the piano, with her ukulele, or deep in the woods with her dogs.