While I’m writing this from outside my parents’ considerably less-impressive garden, I’m considering where SLUG fits into the spectrum of purposeful plant-growing. It still often seems like an unfamiliar midpoint between my family’s starved tomatoes and the corner of the immense corn monoculture that I can see from my house. No one in SLUG disagrees that gardening improves the world or oneself in some way, but the specifics of how that happens or how to maximize it are surprisingly hard to discuss concretely. One approach is that it’s unnecessary to do so: gardening has a pretty wide range of applications in the real world that a SLUG graduate can find themselves, and their time at SLUG is best spent just learning how to garden most effectively. We’ve mostly settled on this liberal arts-influenced approach, but it leaves so much open and can be unsatisfying for a group of people interested in social justice, in addition to gardening and so many other things.
This is only a discussion of the garden’s greater purpose, too: if we do decide we want just to learn how to garden and save the specifics of world-improvement for later in our careers, we run into more questions. Not just ideologically, but physically, how does or should SLUG fit between an experimental and learning-focussed garden like mine at home and a profit-driven farm? What plants do we grow, the ones that make the most money sold to the Lawrence dining hall, or ones that could feed the disadvantaged either now or someday? We strive for a balance. The labor intensive core of the garden is tomatoes, greens, and chives, which we grow every year and sell. It’s important to learn the financial skills related to managing a garden, as well as necessary to support ourselves. While many of the rest of the plants we grow are pretty standard, like rhubarb or radishes, we don’t make as much money or spend as much time on them. These categories are pretty arbitrary, but the point is that SLUG is capable of fulfilling multiple purposes at once and being an opportunity for we gardeners to learn multiple pretty separate skills.
While, like other gardeners, I put in most of my time doing standard gardening tasks like weeding or pruning, what I most enjoy is the more experimental learning we get to do. Right before I returned home I set up two new oyster mushroom cultures using woodchips that would normally be composted. There’s a reasonable chance they won’t grow at all, but they could also add to our income and use our materials in efficient, interesting ways.
I think it’s hard to go wrong while gardening, especially in an environment like SLUG where we’re all learning and many of us are starting from little or no experience. That doesn’t preclude pushing for involvement and productivity; in fact, involvement especially seems more important because failure or not, it’s impossible not to learn in a garden. In my case I can see just by looking at the size of SLUG’s tomatoes compared to my parents’ tiny sickly ones how much more they know, but either way it’s pretty fun participating in a successful garden.