The Green House Journal chronicles seasonal harvests of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs growing at The Green House, my urban prairie on Detroit’s east side.
Summer 2021 Harvest
When food shortages left grocery store shelves barren and carryout became a trend, millions rolled up their sleeves to plant seeds and grow their own food. I was one of them. Words by Lyndsay C. Green; Photos by Gerard + Belevender
On a balmy Sunday in July, I found myself in my backyard in a pair of gauchos stained with dirt. They were worn at the knees from kneeling in mulch at my budding homestead. Sweat glossed my forehead and beaded at my temples, dampening the tendrils framing my face and eventually creating soft curls weighed down by salty droplets. The palms of my hands, opposite my knuckles, hardened with calluses from countless hours shoveling compost into the raised beds I built by hand, as well as the gravel that now paves a walkway between perennials and tomato plants.
Soulful gospel music blared in my headphones and, in a flash, it hit me: Somewhere along the course of the pandemic, I’d morphed into my mother.
Though I’d been standing in my yard on Detroit’s east side, the experience transported me back to the days at my childhood home in Mount Vernon, NY, a small suburb of NYC steps away from the Bronx. On any given summer day, my mother—an avid gardener and liturgical dancer—could be found planting zinnias and cosmos with the song to her latest choreography bouncing off of the rose bushes and hostas. I’d peek out of my bedroom window to find her pirouetting occasionally with a trowel in-hand. Dirt smudged across her freckled cheeks like war paint.
Somewhere along the course of the pandemic, I’d morphed into my mother.
The benefit of growing fresh, organic produce is manipulating it into creative dishes for my friends and family to enjoy.
The garden was the last place I wanted to be growing up. A city girl at heart, I much rathered frolic in the concrete jungle that is NYC than to get tangled in the weeds with my mother at our suburban Westchester home. But today, in the midst of a global emergency when all communication with my mother was relegated to sporadic FaceTime calls clumsily facilitated by recreation assistants at her nursing home, I was called to the garden. In my case, not only to sow floral seeds as my mother did, but to grow my own food.
I wasn’t alone in my yearning to get out into the yard and start a vegetable garden. George Ball, chairman of Atlee Burpee & Co.—one of the more popular seed suppliers among home gardeners—says the company sold the most vegetable seeds in its 144-year history in March 2020. Johnny’s Selected Seeds experienced a similar fate, seeing a 270% rise in sales that same month. Suddenly, folks I was following on social media went from amateur bakers to regenerative gardeners, graduating from banana bread to heirloom tomatoes.
Ball says the spikes are consistent with sales records during historic calamities, including the oil crises of the 1970s, the stock market crash of ’87, and the dotcom bubble burst of 2000. Call it a trend or human instinct to gain control of our own food supply when times are unknown, but through a year in isolation grew an appeal to return to the earth.
But today, in the midst of a global emergency … I was called to the garden.
As a restaurant critic and food writer, I felt compelled to support Detroit’s restaurant industry, which, without much government intervention was—and continues to be—in dire need of patronage. Out of necessity, many establishments conceptualized ways for customers to conveniently and safely access their food. Some signed on with third-party online ordering apps and delivery services, while others created concise carryout menus. Some even reinvented their businesses to offer to-go cocktails, a feature that appealed to anyone looking for a semblance of a social life during a global lockdown.
As easy as it became to order takeout and support Detroit’s dining scene, my eye wandered elsewhere. Yes, I ordered online and purchased copious lattes at café walk-up windows. But I also honed the art of starting seeds and watching them mature into edible artwork. I also began supporting local farmers who recognized the importance of food sovereignty well before COVID-19 posed a threat to the food supply chain.
If I’m honest, the impetus of my passion for farming was a spiritual calling. As I write this in fact, I imagine it was similar to my mother’s calling to Christian ministry. The voice, she says, came in a whisper as she sifted through our strawberry patch. Though there wasn’t a voice that approached me in the garden, there was a force that got me there. As I reported on food shortages, as well as inaccessibility to fresh, affordable, nutrient-dense foods in marginalized communities, I was reminded that we have everything that we need in nature. By planting seeds and nurturing their growth, we have the ability to nourish our bodies.
Restaurants, of course, are a welcome delight, but also a privilege reserved for those of us fortunate enough to afford dine-in experiences. In Detroit, grocery shopping and access to organic produce, unfortunately, is also a privilege for many. A predominantly-Black city, Detroit is known largely as a food apartheid where inner city communities turn to liquor stores and gas stations for dairy products. Fast-food joints provide the easiest access to prepared meals. These are the same communities plagued with the largest numbers of fatal, diet-related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—these, in turn, are the same illnesses that place these communities most at-risk for COVID-19. On the drive to my own neighborhood, which borders the affluent Grosse Pointes, the aroma of fried foods is an indicator that I’ve crossed city lines.
My eyes have widened to these injustices and the idea that growing our own food is a form of activism that could help mitigate food insecurity in our own city and beyond.
A number of other factors have fueled my penchant for urban farming. Whether growing our own food, enrolling in community-supported agriculture, or frequenting local farmers markets, incorporating homegrown foods into our diets has immense power to change us in more ways than one. Opting for that carrot from Keep Growing Detroit or the onion from Rescue MI Nature Now over the same vegetables shipped from another coast, not only fosters our own physical health, but the economic health of our local food system, too.
From a spiritual perspective, it is my belief that growing our own food is one of the greatest forms of gratitude for the gifts that have been provided to us in nature. Tending to our gardens shows an appreciation for all life forms—including plant life, which sustains human life. Without coating our foods in harmful pesticides, or genetically modifying them to fit the societal standards of good food, we’re accepting the notion that our food sources are perfect in their natural state. Bumped, bruised, or misshapen, they’re perfectly designed and therefore perfectly suited to nourish us.
Plus, have you tasted a garden tomato plucked off of the vine? Peeled open the parachute that encases a tomatillo to reveal the verdant confection inside? Smelled the aroma of basil and rosemary plants as they sway in a breeze? Watched acorn squash crawl away from its own patch to clasp onto anything in its path as if singing Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch?”
Research cites that gardening has a positive impact on mood and mental health, too. A 2020 study in the Twin Cities showed that vegetable gardening can significantly promote emotional well-being.
I didn’t need the academics to support this idea, though. My mother, the careless lady who danced barefoot in our garden all those years ago, was known for her lighthearted spirit and toothy smile. Her boisterous laugh couldn’t be contained. Her upbeat energy infectious.
Of all of the benefits of gardening—vegetables or otherwise—inheriting a fraction of the joy the garden brought my mother, is all I need.
The Green House Journal is a creative project, where I merge my loves of farming and publishing. I’m still processing exactly what that looks like so bear with me as I sort out the format of these essays each season. If you’re interested in receiving my next journal entry via email in newsletter form, please share your email address via the contact form on my About page.