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Gardening's Benefits Can't be Weighed on Scale
by John Hershey
August 29, 2010

In the office where I work, as in many organizations, employees are evaluated using this formula: Success = performance > expectations.

To climb the career ladder, your performance must exceed the expectations placed upon you. Most employees strive to get ahead by working harder and taking on more responsibility. But even someone with my rusty recollection of 10th-grade algebra can see that there are two ways to make performance exceed expectations: You can increase performance or you can reduce expectations. That's just basic mathematics.

If you concentrate only on doing good work, you just create problems for yourself, because your performance in a given year becomes the baseline for the next year. The more you excel, the more you trap yourself in a vicious spiral of rising expectations. Talk about an unsustainable lifestyle!

I have a better way. My method shifts the focus to the expectations side of the equation. I have spent the past several years systematically and methodically lowering my employer's expectations of me, to the point where it is now almost mathematically impossible for me not to exceed them.

This technique has served me well in my career, and recently I discovered that it works in the garden, too.

In summer, I have high expectations in my garden. From the first spinach and radishes of May until the last parsnip is pulled from the ground in November, I expect to have a large and continuous supply of vegetables. If I'm not serving my children huge salads they won't eat and tormenting my friends with bags of unwashed and unsolicited chard and beans almost daily, I feel like a failure.

But in the winter, my gardening expectations are extremely low. I know the soil needs to renew itself between growing seasons. So if my garden accomplishes nothing between the first and last frost dates other than resting up, I'm satisfied. If only my employer were so enlightened!

Exceeding expectations Having sufficiently lowered my own expectations, I found a way to exceed them. In a crude cold frame fashioned from scrap lumber and translucent plastic, I grew a small crop of mâche lettuce all winter long. If you want to grow this gourmet salad green, the first thing you have to do is learn to pronounce it, which is confusing because the "a" is wearing that cute little hat. But saying "mâche" is easy for gardeners: It rhymes with "squash." The other important thing about mâche is that it is utterly impervious to cold.

It was a frigid winter here in Zone 5, with many nights below freezing. Yet the mâche's spoon-shaped rosettes survived. Every day, I trudged through the snow to pick a fresh winter salad. Was it the overflowing bowl of lettuce, cucumber, radishes and tomatoes I have in July? Of course not. It was 14 little leaves drenched in olive oil, vinegar and garlic. But I didn't expect a summer salad. I expected nothing, and I got more than that, so I'm happy.

Summer is when we expect to get more out of gardening. But how much more? As the season begins, we naturally wonder about the return on our investment of time, seeds and sweat.

Last year, I took part in an experiment to answer this question. Along with a cross section of other community gardeners around my city, I weighed everything I harvested from my 10-by-15 plot. At the end of the season, I was amazed to discover that I had grown a whopping 281.5 pounds of food!

Granted, 280 pounds of that was zucchini. But it's still a rather impressive figure, you must admit.

That's a slight exaggeration. The heavy-set members of the squash family accounted for most of my total, but tomatoes, garlic, greens and other vegetables were also represented. It takes quite a few basil leaves to make a significant contribution to the gross tonnage, but the final tally easily exceeded even my summer expectations.

More than a hobby Many of us think of gardening as a hobby rather than a major source of food. We do it mainly for fun, with the side benefit of producing some healthy, delicious vegetables to supplement our store-bought diet. But as this experiment shows, a small plot in a community garden can add hundreds of pounds of high-value organic produce to your menu. We're not just hobbyists, we embody the Jeffersonian ideal of the small yeoman farmer.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." So we have that going for us. I don't recall the author of the Declaration of Independence saying such nice things about people who enjoy golf or stamp collecting or other hobbies.

Yet the total weight doesn't include the most valuable results of community gardening, like making friends and promoting community spirit and healthy lifestyles in the neighborhood. These benefits are just as real, even if they are harder to quantify.

The real advantages of urban community gardening are intangible. They are measured not in ounces and pounds but in minutes spent watching bees explore a sunflower and hours drinking iced tea with neighbors and in many other surprising ways. No matter what you harvest, you'll definitely get more out of your garden than you expected. And that, even by the rigorous professional standards used in workplaces everywhere, is the very definition of success.

Of course, I'm still going to add up every turnip and onion this year in a vainglorious quest to break that 300-pound barrier.

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