Andrew Bard Schmookler


On the Rationality of Gardening
A Cost-Benefit Analysis
Andrew Bard Schmookler

Is it rational for me to grow, in my garden, my own vegetables and herbs?
I ask myself this as I contemplate the fortifications I have erected around my recuperating stand of basil and around my two remaining pumpkins. Furtive and voracious ground hogs have increased the costs, in labor expended, of raising this year's crops beyond the usual regimen of planting, watering and weeding.

I know how a friend of mine, who is an economist, would answer my question. I was present once when he came in from his garden with a handful of cucumbers and announced, "Here's this year's crop. If I count what I paid for the seeds, and figure my labor at minimum wage, they cost at least five bucks apiece." So ended his gardening career. From then on, his cucumbers came from the supermarket.

My basil would not be so easily replaced, I realize. Out here in the boonies, bought basil is dried basil, and dried basil does not make a salad heavenly or supply the basis for pesto. So it's grow it myself, or do without.

But what about the pumpkins? In a couple of months, farmers not five miles from where I've encaged my swelling gourds will have roadside stands glowing orange with their harvest. For less than four dollars, I can have one of their pumpkins for a jackolantern and one for our Thanksgiving pie. Is it rational to go to this trouble so that the pumpkins we use have been grown under our care?

I'm still thinking about this as I get up to gather wild blackberries and blueberries for a fruit salad at dinner. They're growing in the sun like weeds in a patch by the edge of our woods. It's mid-July and the berries are bursting with their ripened juices. Ten minutes of grazing yields the handful I'll need. I look with pleasure at my yield, glistening at the bottom of the white bowl. The phrase "from the bosom of nature" comes to my mind.

Whether the means are rational or not, it comes to me, all depends on how one understands the ends achieved. Do the "goods" I've gained from my labor consist entirely of these objects? Is our consumption of these berries in the bowl the same as if we'd bought them in the store? If the answers are yes, then my ten minutes spent for forty cents worth of berries was worth less than half the new minimum wage. But I know that these equivalences are false, and it is here that our notion of economic rationality can lead us to act irrationally.

Adam Smith founded his famous economics on the power of the division of labor. If each of us concentrates on doing just one thing, he showed, we'll each be far more productive. Then we can truck, barter and trade with our fellows, exchanging a bit of our product for more of what they produce than we could have made for ourselves. If a pin-maker spent his ten minutes making pins, in other words, he would earn enough to buy more blueberries from a blueberry grower than he could harvest on his own in that time. All marvelously true, and that truth lies at the foundation of the great wealth of our nation.

But there are costs and benefits left out of that calculation. The time of the pinmaker is enormously productive, but it is conceived and --too often-- lived purely as a means to an end. One of the sacrifices of specialization is that the stuff of our lives --time -- is sacrificed on the rack of narrowness and repetition. My ten minutes grazing for berries, or watering my pumpkins, is not pure cost like the labors of the more efficient pinmaker. It's a labor of love.

For the part-time gardener, the means is part of the end, and it enriches beyond the production of a mere commodity that can be purchased in stores. I become connected with the organic processes of the earth in a way the pulling some produce off the counter could never do. I participate in a miracle. Where the specialist's world tends to narrow toward the size of a pinhead, with my "inefficient" labor --with my devotion of time-- I have purchased a larger world for my spirit to dwell in.

Tonight, when I combine the berries with yogurt and cinnamon, the result may taste no different than if the berries had been store-bought. But for my family and me, it will not be the same bowlful of food. We will be savoring also our place on the earth, the ground on which we live.

And come this Thanksgiving, when my wife, April, makes a pie from one of the pumpkins we've grown, I'll be celebrating not only our enjoying the blessings of living in this prosperous country, with its mighty productivity, but also the pleasures of watching a plant turn earth into pumpkin and my victory over the marauding ground hogs.
What's rational is to seek a life that's rich in more ways than one.