It was on one of those fine days in 2008 when the stock market was plunging around a zillion points that I decided I was going to grow a few vegetables. I didn’t have any stocks, but the gravity of the situation was enhanced by my friend – let’s call her S – who saw it all as a sign: the beginning of the end was nigh . In a few months, S said, looters would be terrorizing Whole Foods, bread lines would wrap around Golden Gate Park, the Internet would be rendered useless, and the only people with enough to eat would be those growing their own food and letting chickens lay eggs around their living rooms.
I’m not much of a dystopian (I tend toward blind optimism), but I decided I would try to believe S just enough to help me get off my butt and plant a vegetable garden. Having an urban garden is something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but I could never find the time. If anything could motivate me, I figured, it should be the threat of starvation.
Alas, in 2008 I didn’t even plant a sprig of rosemary. Then the world didn’t end and I thought I’d missed my chance.
In 2009, I tried to use “simplifying my life.” You know the argument: I’ll work less and save money by staying home and cooking and growing my own food and it will make me more enlightened and happy. That worked even less well because I kept telling myself, “as soon as I’m not so busy, I’m going to start simplifying.”
It’s 2010 now and it’s time to stop lying to myself. My strategy this time is campaign reality and acceptance: accept that famine isn’t going to strike San Francisco at any moment, accept that I’m a busy person (and kind of like being busy), and do the logical thing – plant a busy person’s vegetable garden. This entails, of course, writing about planting a “busy person’s vegetable garden” so it qualifies as work. If I can figure out what a busy person’s vegetable garden is, I think this one’s full proof.
Walking from my outer sunset home to the Sloat Garden Center near the San Francisco Zoo – fog hovering low for that extra epic Rocky Balboa-third-try-with-his-vegetable-garden kind of feeling – I decide my busy person’s vegetable garden should have an acronym (BPVG), and that it should have some criteria, you know, to make it official and business like.
Here are the BPVG criteria:
- The BPVG will be purchased and planted in under two hours.
- The BPVG will cost me less than $100.
- The BPVG will only need 10 minutes of maintenance per-week.
- The BPVG will be 100 percent organic.
- The BPVG will have to grow in my sandy ass soil on the Great Hwy without me needing to put compost in that soil for three years (or something to that back-breaking effect).
Continuing through the thick and epic fog, I note these criteria and feel emboldened. I then have a phone meeting with my book agent about important stuff because the bpvg allows for phone meetings. I tell my agent that I only have 10 minutes to chat because soon I’ll have to begin shopping for my bpvg.
“What’s a BPVG?” she asks.
I tell her and she says, “Cool. Good luck with that.” And the fog grows thick and cold and enshrouds me.
Inside the Sloat Garden Center – which sells more organic planting stuff than anywhere in the city – people wander about looking like gardeners. They say things like, “Do you have any calendula?” “How is this swan neck hoe?”
This makes me wonder if my BPVG will be possible. Will I have to do things like learn lots of Latin plant names and about soil microbes? These were not factored into my time-line.
Nervous, I approach a Sloat Garden Center employee carrying flowers and he tells me to “wait a second, I’m carrying these.” They’re busy here too! Is that a good sign? Robert, a kind-eyed clerk with a maroon apron comes to help me while I’m gazing confusedly at potted “Tat Soi Asian greens,” wondering if I’ve ever eaten Tat Soi Asian greens. I tell him my needs for the BPVG and he doesn’t know what to suggest. Uh oh.
He refers me to Sara, who is arranging lettuce on trays and giving orders. Sara whirls around and races through some recommendations. “Everything-on-this-table-is-organic-and-will-grow-out-here,” she says. “Your-soil-is-probably-lousy-so-you’ll-need-lots-of-loam-builder-and-fertilizer. Sorry-I’m-going-so-fast. I’m-just-getting-off-and-trying-not-to-get-any-overtime. It-has-been-a-very-busy-day.”
Jackpot: my BPVG chief strategist. Sara doesn’t even introduce me to any seeds. She can see my team of investors are hungry for this bpvg to scale up yesterday. She points me straight to the table of plants that are already partly grown called “starts.” Sara tells me to mix this stuff called “loam builder” half-half with the soil (which means sand in my case) along with some scoops of vegetable start up fertilizer. I don’t ask Sara what loam builder is. She’s busy and I’m busy and we need to get this done in a busy frenzy that makes us feel even more important than we already think we are.
Like a good chief strategist, Sara delegates the next tasks to Robert, who shows me these huge plastic bags, and says, “this is loam builder, it’s only $9.99.”
“Ok,” I say, “I’ll take two.”
There is only a little time to assess the table of organic things that Sara says might grow in my sandy yard. I thought I would be choosing between some marginally edible succulent and seaweed, but for $3.99 a pop, I can choose from Barbados lettuce, Iceberg Lettuce, Lettuce Santa Fe, speckled Batavian summer crisped head type lettuce, arugula, Bulls Blood Beets, Puntarelle Stretta (no idea what that is either), Swiss Chard, those Tat Soi Asian greens, mustard, green shishnu, red shishnu, climbing sugar snaps, cilantro, basil, heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Sungold tomatoes, strawberries, Habanero peppers, sweet peppers, eggplant, garlic chives, purple sage, oregano (Greek or Italian), torpedo onions, and more.
What the hell is this? I don’t know what half these vegetables are or if I want to eat them. I do a quick ROI analysis – time spent choosing divided by amount of edible food I will receive, which I have no idea about – and just grab about ten plants whose names I recognize. This takes about five minutes. I have already spent 15 minutes here. Time is running out!
I head to the register where a young guy with baggy shorts named Duffy rings me up, somehow convincing me also to be a Sloat Garden Center member (“it’s free”) where I can earn points toward discounts. I sign up, but this is sloppy business on my part. Three minutes off the clock. Fortunately I’m hitting my other numbers. The cost of all my vegetables, plus loam, fertilizer, two tomato metal thingies that keep them from drooping, is $98 dollars.
The next day, I’m on it. I’m the mother flippin’ CEO of this BPVG. This start-up fertilizer is about to fast track my bpvg to an IPO.
My back yard only has about 32 square feet of planting space where the sun might someday shine if the summer perma-fog ever clears. Doubtful. But I will coach my vegetables with synergistic team building exercises. “When there is no sun,” I tell my starts, “you can create your sunshine from the inside – together.” I dump my bags of loam, nice rich dark stuff (I still don’t know what it is) onto the tan soil that looks like it has been imported from the Mojave. The fertilizer instructions suggest measuring 12 cups into the soil, but I save time and just pour a bunch of fertilizer in with the loam and stir it all up. Sara told me to put my vegetables 12” apart but it turns out I bought far too many for my plot so I put them 6” apart. “These are your cubicles,” I tell them, “but you shouldn’t be afraid to chat between the walls, keep the creative juices flowing!”
I have a diverse urban portfolio here: two varieties of heirloom tomatoes, basil, red leaf lettuce, iceberg lettuce, the bulls blood beets, torpedo onions (they seemed a nice symbol of masculinity), oregano, garlic chives, and rosemary. The rosemary will be like my insurance policy. If I’m now a venture gardener, spreading my seed funding, I have to know that not every start-up will be a Google. Rosemary, however, would grow in a gutter and will allow me to claim success no matter what for my next round of funding.
Within one-hour and 17 minutes I have a garden that looks, well, like a fairly normal garden. Success! I water my starts and give an inspiring presentation about how a whole generation of busy gardeners is riding on their success. “Sure,” I tell them, “we may not be some big corporate monoculture farm in the valley. We’re not even a fancy permaculture farm in Bolinas. But what we have here is a great idea, an idea that could take millions of busy people into the green.”
Want your own BPVG? Whether you want to brave seed planting, get ahead with the organic vegetable starts, or even get your green thumb confidence up with some succulents, Sloat Garden Center can get you what you need. They also host weekly gardening seminars that are only $5 a pop. And for times when you can’t come to the store, you can even submit questions to the Garden Guru online.