John Sensenbaugh wanted to reduce his carbon footprint by growing some food. A retired Napa retail business owner, Sensenbaugh was not born with a green thumb. Yet feeling the nudge to eat more locally produced foods, he last year took to vegetable growing—and failed (except in the eyes of the deer that stripped his plants to the roots). So he tried again. This time he outsmarted the cloven-hoofed grazers by adding height to the fence. He even amended the soil. The garden survived, and Sensenbaugh can’t stop talking about it. “I told myself this year was going to be different. Now I’ve gone since April without having to buy vegetables, except some onions and potatoes,” Sensenbaugh says, eyes wide and smiling. “I pick lettuce almost every night.”
I detect in his voice the same tones of surprise and pride I hear when my eight-year-old has attempted something new, expecting one outcome and getting several more welcome outcomes in the bargain. Sensenbaugh is delighted to learn that he is not a plant killer, and admits to rookie mistakes like planting radish seeds too close together. Unlike the Napa foodies who garden with a vengeance, or the old-timers who can garden merely by the smell of the dirt, Sensenbaugh is just a guy with a no-frills vegetable patch, trying to figure out which end of the spade is which. But his experience clearly illustrates some of the ways in which growing vegetables surprisingly adds more to life than salad.
Sensenbaugh lives alone. He told me that growing vegetables is something he does by himself. “It’s me and my dog,” he says. “Gardening is basically a solitary activity.” Yet beyond the fencing, watering, weeding and what Sensenbaugh calls “playing in the dirt,” gardening is not altogether a solo endeavor. In fact, it appears to have drawn new people and experiences into his life.
In order to figure out how to garden, Sensenbaugh had to get some help. “I met a couple of other people who were going to get gardens going,” he says. “We kept notes and helped each other get started. I’ve met some people I might not have known otherwise, and I’ve gotten to know my neighbors better.”
While Sensenbaugh was out weeding one day, he spontaneously called over the fence to his neighbor with an offer of leeks. The neighbor, who’s been living next door for almost a decade, was happy to receive the leeks and later brought over a hefty load of apricots from his yard as a thank-you. When Sensenbaugh discovered a bumper crop of wild plums from a volunteer tree on his property, he bartered with a friend who owned the right tools for the job, and they spent two days picking and canning about 20 pints of jelly and eight quarts of plums in syrup. They split the takings and gave some to friends.
Sensenbaugh has quickly learned the social benefits of sharing his garden’s gifts. When he went out on a date recently, he brought over vegetables instead of flowers. “The second time I was with her,” he says, “I greeted her with corn, tomatoes and blackberries. It was better than a dozen roses.” Sensenbaugh has also proudly served his garden greens to the guys. “Some of my male friends came over and I made them corn salad with shredded beets and cucumber and tomatoes,” Sensenbaugh says proudly. “They were duly impressed.”
Another connection Sensenbaugh has made from gardening is a fresh perspective on a childhood chore. “My mom had a wonderful garden when I was a kid,” he remembers. It was his chore to weed it, so he was not a big fan. “Now I have a lot more admiration and respect for what she did because my garden is about a tenth of what she had,” he says. “I plan to make my garden bigger. I want to have a winter garden, too.”
Sensenbaugh recalls a quote that strikes him as true. “I was told there’s a balance of time you’re allotted on earth,” he says. “But time spent gardening isn’t subtracted from the balance.”