CHICAGO — Zig-zagging her cart past the wall of compost manure, around the few brave pots empty and shivering out in the late winter sunlight, Andrea Versenyi arrived, at last, at the root of her night-rousing visions: row upon row of bright, shiny seed packets.
She was, she admitted, a tad leery about carrots, intimidated by broccoli. But still, she forged on, fingering her way through the vegetable alphabet — arugula straight through zucchini.
“Let it be known that I have no idea what I’m doing, but that’s OK. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed,” she announced, more or less to the packets themselves, as she lifted one marked Early Sweet Sugar Pie Pumpkin. She then whirled into what would become her mantra, intended to calm her newborn agricultural angst: “This is an experiment. This is my starter garden, right?”
Versenyi, 48, calls herself a “timid urban gardener.” Only once before, back in the side yard of her childhood home in the Berkshires, has she ever dabbled in underground foods, back then trying for potatoes and carrots. “Not much yield,” she deadpans. “Three 2-inch carrots was all.”
This year, though, she sees a patch thick with beans and cherry tomatoes in her Evanston side yard. She dares to dream of one sweet cantaloupe. And leaf after leaf of lettuce. Heck, she’s already set on the vinaigrette — tremulous optimist that she is.
Versenyi is hardly alone, wide-eyed and quaking out in her not-yet-turned vegetable plot.
On March 20, Michelle Obama and 23 fifth-graders from Washington, D.C.’s Bancroft Elementary broke ground on what will be the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
The 1,100-square-foot plot will grow 55 varieties of vegetables, from tomatilloes to Thai basil; the whole family, even President Obama, will be enlisted for weed-pulling duties.
According to the National Gardening Association, some 9 million Americans are set, for the very first time, to press sole to shovel and carve out a swath of what might be called the New American Kitchen Garden — or the Liberty Plot, or Just Plain Old Common Sense Laid Out in Rows — we might, this growing season, be a nation in need of some collective back-forty quelling.
What’s rumbling just under the sod here is part reclaiming the Earth, part a chance to swat back the recession and part the ol’ American can-do credo. It adds up to a vigor for vegetable plots — everywhere, it seems, they’re being sketched, laid out with strings and stakes and sky-high hopes — that hasn’t been seen since one Eleanor Roosevelt dug up the White House lawn amid the food crunch of World War II and birthed a nation of victory gardens.
All in all, it’s estimated that 43 million American households will be poking in seeds and, if all goes according to plan, plucking backyard edibles. With so many vegetable-coaxing virgins among the hoe-heaving masses, we dug up Five Vegetable Tonics guaranteed — OK, so you might want to cross your fingers here — to soothe those first-time jitters and put to bed the new-farmer blues.
Tonic No. 1: If you can figure this out, you’ll never go hungry.
“The ability to grow a vegetable is a survival skill akin to swimming,” says Versenyi, as she steers her blue van toward the big-box store with the A-to-Z seed rack. “I wouldn’t let my children grow up without knowing how to swim. I feel like if something ever were to happen ...”
She lets the sentence dangle, before picking up again.
“I mean, who expected World War II to ravage my father’s peaceful little village in Hungary? Who expected earthquakes in China? Things happen. I should know how to grow food.”
Tonic No. 2: This growing thing, it’s in your genes. Really, just dig, dig, dig.
Jeanne Pinsof Nolan is a former “eco-extremist” who lived and worked on three organic farms before returning to her North Shore Chicago roots. Five years ago she launched The Organic Gardener, her full-service garden firm (theorganicgardener.net), and, this year, she can barely keep up with demand.
“People need a lot of coaching the first year,” says Pinsof Nolan, who will swing by for a one-time consult or plant and maintain the whole plot, right down to the white picket fence with climbing sweet peas and pole beans. “As a whole, our society is quite a few generations removed from when everyone grew most of their food. Not a lot of people feel confident buying a book and going for it. But I find that the instinct is rekindled pretty quickly once you teach the basic principles.”
Pinsof Nolan has had her share of frantic calls from first-timers. There’s the did-I-let-my-broccoli-go-too-long hysteria. And “I’ve definitely had some rabbit emergencies,” she adds.
Tonic No. 3: It’s not as hard as it looks.
In Hyde Park, Justin Shelton — who grew up on a large hobby farm in, get this, Farmland, Ind. (ZIP code 47340, look it up, lest you think we’re yankin’ your carrot here) — has become something of the neighborhood vegetable-growing guru to his flock of timid urban gardeners.
“You would think that gardening was alchemy,” says Shelton, who works in the University of Chicago’s department of human genetics but astounds his neighbors even more so with his knack for making broccoli pop up from the ground.
“People just don’t know where vegetables come from, or how they’re grown,” says Shelton, who tills a small plot in a Hyde Park community garden, and has inspired three or four backyard gardeners on his block. “I was raised growing plants from seed. This stuff, I kind of absorbed it just as I grew up.”
His prescription for those suffering vegetable qualms: “Just plant something and see what happens. I’m always afraid that people think it’s going to be a lot more difficult than it is. Plants want to grow. Seeds want to grow. And it will happen.”
Tonic No. 4: Lookin’ for a second chance at livin’?
“Your life begins when you start growing your vegetables,” declares Vicki Nowicki of Downers Grove, Ill., who has been teaching and preaching the gospel of backyard organics for some 30 years, and whose classes this year at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle filled to capacity and spilled onto a waiting list.
“You just come alive as a human being. This is your birthright, our oldest profession.”
Come the height of summer, you can barely see clear across Nowicki’s backyard Eden, the 80-by-60 plot she calls her “exuberance of biologic diversity,” what with the 20-some varieties of heirloom tomatoes, kale, pole beans, Brussels sprouts, rhubarb, squash, carrots and, oh, that’s just the start of it.
But once upon a time, Nowicki, too, felt like a worm out of dirt, the first time she set foot in a garden. She’d grown up with a “mother who opened up cans” when it came time for feasting. But somewhere deep inside, from generations ago, “I just think (the knack for growing) was in me and it didn’t get pounded out of me.”
Tonic No. 5: What, you think it’s harder than raising a human?
Here’s how that timid urban gardener Versenyi, who, by the way, is a mother of two — Beni, 7, and Ada, who is about to turn 5 — puts it: “You know what I’m thinking? I make a million parenting mistakes a day, and my kids are still alive at bedtime. I assume I can make mistakes with vegetables, too, and they’ll still grow. They’re going to be forgiving, don’t you think?”