Planting Seeds of Change

Recently, while driving to a meeting, I started thinking about healthy food. How can the average American (if such a person exists) avoid eating GM (genetically modified) fruits and vegetables inundated with pesticides and fertilizers? My first thought was to buy organic. I often do, even though it’s more expensive, but many households can’t afford it. During the summer, I frequent outdoor markets and buy from local organic farmers. This is fine during the warm months and I enjoy meeting with the farmers and supporting them… but it’s also expensive. Besides, what do you do about the rest of the year?

Back in the day we used to have a garden. While it takes time, gardening is a viable solution to the current alternatives. And what isn’t eaten during the growing season can be shared, canned and frozen. As I drove, I envisioned my family working with me… everyone pitching in and reaping a bounty of fresh produce. I imagined sharing with my neighbors and… then reality struck! I live in downtown Chicago, and there’s not a lot of arable land on the 28th floor!

Soon I found myself in the suburbs, driving down a residential street. An elderly couple stood in their yard talking to a couple guys in uniforms… and then I spotted the lawn chemical truck in the driveway.

I remembered spending money on lawn chemicals when we lived in the suburbs. Why do people spend time and money growing, cutting and maintaining grass? Who came up with this idea? Is it social conditioning, tradition… perceptual blindness? My questions triggered a rush of ideas and visions… I had a flashback to my time spent in Germany. The cemeteries I had visited there were so beautiful and the locals took such pride in creating and maintaining them. I began to envision suburban neighborhoods filled with beautiful gardens… like a Monet painting composed of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. Visions of crop circles, corn mazes and rows of fruit trees, and beautifully designed vegetable patterns of all shapes, colors and kinds raced through my head. My brain was crystallizing with interconnected concepts and possibilities. The benefits of replacing worthless grass lawns with beautiful functioning gardens seemed endless…

Fresh healthy food right from your own yard… unemployed and retired citizens would stay active, eat healthier and reduce food costs… neighbors would reconnect and establish a new sense of purpose and community… home real estate investments would provide additional returns… physical exercise would help to reduce heart disease, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, and by extension, reduce medical costs… creativity and learning would improve through exploration of gardening methods (collecting, bartering, developing, selling and exchanging seeds/products, recipes, ideas, labor and expertise with one another)… kids would experience nature, learn about healthy food, responsibility, community, and have fun getting their hands dirty in the process… new jobs would be created for landscape designers, tool and equipment manufacturers, entrepreneurs interested in packaging, storing, canning, making deliveries, and creating healthy products from fresh produce… the possibilities are endless… and the physical, psychological and spiritual benefits are too numerous to list.

I reached my destination and parked the car but my mind continued racing with possibilities. Could this idea really work? Thomas Jefferson believed that an agrarian national economy with many small independent farmers would ensure America’s freedom. My idea goes a step further—a nation of independent gardeners! I don’t know if this concept could work… but I do know the current solution isn’t the answer.

I’m sharing my thoughts not as a solution, but as seeds of potential. We never know if our ideas will take root until we plant them. Perhaps this idea could start in one or two neighborhoods… find some success and spread. That’s how these things typically work.

To quote Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world.  In fact, it is the only way it ever has.”

As for me, I’m exploring the vacant lot across the street (currently labeled a problem), and a potential rooftop garden for our building. The possibilities are endless… the world we focus on is the world we create. I hope you will share your thoughts and ideas… and point out the pieces I missed on my drive.



12 Responses to “Planting Seeds of Change”

  1. Doug Bentle on March 15th, 2011 8:50 am

    Michael … My wife, a dyed-in-the-wool, anti-GM, pro-organic type, couldn’t agree with you more. I gave up on the “yard of the month” bit 20+ years ago. Haven’t done a garden though due to gardening-related-scarring from my youth. But it’s probably time I got over it. There’s an opportunity, huh?

  2. Michael on March 15th, 2011 4:14 pm

    You should listen to your wife, Doug : ) Yes, the opportunities are infinite! You could start a “garden of the month” program and feed the entire neighborhood healthy food in the process. The possibilities are endless. I enjoyed our conversation today and look forward to our upcoming interview. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Megan on March 15th, 2011 1:41 pm

    I have read about a number of community garden projects in Chicago and New York that allow for just what you would like to do. However, finding land is always difficult and the closest garden to you I’ve seen is on Chicago where Cabrini Green once stood. The area is still bleak but I think this is a great use of the land.

    I tried container gardening on my south-facing back porch but wasn’t successful—the few peppers and tomatoes that grew were eaten y squirrels as soon as they were almost ripe. I certainly can’t afford anything at the farmer’s market unless I pre-plan and ration what I eat, which isn’t a bad idea.

  4. Michael on March 15th, 2011 4:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Megan. And you’ve provided excellent examples of perceived “problems” that are actually solutions. (problem) Cabrini Green > (solution) community garden, (problem) hungry squirrels > (solution) your peppers and tomatoes, (problem) expensive farmer’s market > (solution) pre-planning and rationing. You might not agree with me on the squirrel solution… but they would : )

  5. Matt on March 21st, 2011 4:35 pm

    Great post. My wife and I are also trying to live “green” and garden, though it’s hard when you live in an apartment. So far, we’ve rigged up an indoor hanging vermacompost (worm compost) station, as well as a hanging tomato garden from our balcony. We have a pretty nice “circle of life” going on in our space, seeing as yesterday’s organic waste provides the soil for tomorrow’s lunch. I can’t say that the yield is that great, though!

  6. Tom Farnkoff on April 4th, 2011 5:20 pm

    Some suburban Chicago homeowners tried to let their yards go back to the prairie. They were quickly fined by the local municipalities for not having a lawn. The rules seem to be less stringent about backyard gardens. Backyards are regulated too, in that you can’t dry your laundry on a cloths line.

  7. Claudia Hall Christian on May 29th, 2011 4:24 pm

    How far is the 28th floor from the roof? Michael, if you’ve never seen or been in a beehive, come see me the next time you’re in Denver. Your rooftop is waiting for a little garden bed and a beehive or twelve. You could reconnect with your neighbors, enjoy healthy food, and grow a lot of wonders.

    If the roof is a no go, what about an aero garden? Or better yet a growing wall of lettuce? It’s not that hard to think outside the grocery store.

    There’s very few things in this life where you can invest so little and reap so very very much.

  8. Michael Doran on August 11th, 2011 12:23 pm

    Hey Michael,
    I actually just hired your son for a new job, and he turned me on to your website. You are doing what I aspire to do, so congratulations to you.

    I completely agree with you about the lawn chemicals, and all chemicals for landscaping in general.

    I live in the north burbs and have gone to a zero waste yard. I use no pesticides, keep my mower at the tallest setting and let the clippings feed the lawn, and let it also go dormant when it is hot (unlike my neighbors who water constantly including their concrete and asphalted drive ways, they seem to live in a world where fresh water is abundant and infinite, I know better).

    I put everything organic into my flower beds, and also compost. I have not used a brown bag in five years, and my flower beds are huge and plentiful.

    I also started composting last year so we put all our kitchen scraps in there, as well as yard waste. i even pull the coffee and filter out of my k cups and compost them, and recycle the cups.

    I have young children and am trying to teach them to be responsible stewards of the earth. It is also a lot of fun going against the norm and seeing huge results.

    I wish I could ultimately let the prass go to prairie, but I am removing it slowly over time as I add to my flower beds. We are also involved with a community garden in our town for vegetables. That is very rewarding as well,.

    I encourage you to check out the Sweet Juniper blog. Amazing blog out of Detroit where he talks a lot about how the outlying areas are being turned back into Rural farms, and community gardens are huge and feeding whole neighborhoods.

  9. Michael on August 15th, 2011 10:44 am

    Thank you, Matt. Keep the “circle of life” going… and growing.

    Good points, Tom… thinking must be changed on many levels. The status quo has lost its status. Nature doesn’t care about human laws… it has its own.

    I totally agree, Claudia. The building I’m in has rooftop potential… but condo politics have stagnated progress. Hopefully next year we’ll be up and running. That said, community gardens are growing in Chicago. As you’ve mentioned, the ROI is priceless… connecting neighbors, producing healthy food… and creating a healthier environment. Keep up the great work!

    Thank you, Michael, for the wonderful input, your living example… and for hiring my son! While human potential is limitless, Earth’s resources aren’t. To quote, Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world”… you’re doing just that. By being responsible Earth stewards, we not only make our world a better place, we teach our children, neighbors, peers and communities to do the same. When our words and actions align, we gain credibility… and create positive change. Thank you for doing all you do.

  10. Michael on September 6th, 2011 10:34 am

    Ran across this video… John Kohler’s front yard garden in the suburbs of Northern California. John sheds much light on the concepts discussed in my post… and the reality of “Planting Seeds of Change” He has additional videos on YouTube as well. Enjoy!

  11. Dan Cornwall on August 29th, 2012 5:34 pm

    When i was stationed in Germany many city dwellers had garden plots in the country that had smalle sheds on them, big enough for a cot or two and room for garden tools. They city folk would spend thier weekends tending to their gardens and just spend the weekend their. i’m sure there are some farmers out there that would go in for this type of arraingement on small areas of land not suited for commercial farming. You could even market the idea to the farmer and he could do some old fashion bartering instead of cash for rent. A couple dozen carrots and a few ears of sweet corn, not to mention tomatoes and potatoes go along way today.

  12. Michael on February 28th, 2013 8:21 am

    Interesting information, ideas and possibilities, Dan… thanks for sharing. My friend, Mike Bonifer, wrote an inspiring post on this subject. Imagine the possibilities!

Got something to say?