The tomato has come to symbolize what's wrong with our food system. There is the hard, bland tomato of the supermarket; it looks perfect but lacks taste. And then there is the homegrown variety: freshly picked, still tasting of the vine, bursting with juicy flavour. It's an easily made argument for growing some of your own food.
In her book City Farmer, Lorraine Johnson does make the case for "flavour and nutritional content" being at the top of her (and our) list, as opposed to industry experts who cite "yield, size, firmness, resistance to disease, heat tolerance, uniformity of shale and uniformity in time of ripening" as their priorities.
But Johnson goes much further than just sparkling taste. She examines the whole food-growing movement in many major North American cities, although her story of the reconciliation gardens she visited in the former Yugoslavia is one of the most touching in the book: "Differences of class and ethnicity and age and history ... seem irrelevant to the task at hand: the collective cultivation of food."
The benefits of healthier people and stronger communities have not gone unnoticed by city governments, some of which which have "entrenched community garden promotion in [their]official policies" and have pledged to create thousands of new garden plots in the next few years.
In the same vein, Johnson is a strong advocate for having food-growing gardens in schools. She calls it an "edible education." Children being outdoors, sowing, caring for and then eating and celebrating the food they grow will encourage lifelong good habits.
Facts and figures and benefits aside, it is inspiring to read about the creativity and ingeniousness of people looking for places to grow food in an urban setting. There are vertical walls of vegetables growing up the sides of buildings, gardens on rooftops and balconies, and vegetables growing in dozens of buckets lining a driveway. There are "vacant" lots being taken over and made productive and beautiful - and some made into productive businesses - and there is talk of planting on barges on waterways, and the guerrillas gardeners with their mix of whimsy and serious purpose. Along with all these gardens are the beekeepers, with their gentle honeybees.
Much of the heart and lightness in City Farmer comes from Johnson's own experiences in gardening. There is a chapter on her slapstick adventures with her three chickens, Harmony, Nog and Rue. Following this, she makes a convincing argument about why chickens (though not roosters) should be allowed in cities. Many cities now allow this, and there seem to be next to no problems.
Then there is Johnson's discourse on foraging for edible weeds such as lambsquarters (which tastes much like spinach) and garlic mustard ("I'd say it's practically our duty to eat this bully"), which she makes into a wonderful pesto that she freezes for the winter.
Peppered throughout are short subchapters on such diverse subjects as edible native plants to grow in gardens, city bees, compost, vegetables that grow in light shade, maximizing space and more. The resources at the end of the book contain a selected list of urban farms and edible demonstration gardens, and a selected list of urban agriculture and food-related organizations.
It's wonderfully soul-nourishing to read a book that's all about impossibilities made possible, and how to plant your dreams and watch them grow.
Sherry A. Firing is a Toronto artist and gardener.