Can Anyone Grow Their Own Food ‘From the Ground Up’?

[25 September 2013]

By Catherine Ramsdell

When Jeanne Nolan was just a teenager, she left her parents’ comfortable home and lifestyle and ended up living on a commune (cult?) called Zendik Farm. Throughout From the Ground Up, Nolan weaves in memories from her time there. Many are unsettling—such as when Nolan was mocked and left alone in a hospital to give birth because she needed an epidural after 15hours of labor. But some are not. Zendik Farm taught her much about conservation and nature—from growing organic food to butchering chickens to making natural medicines to cure ailing goats.

After leaving the commune, Nolan became a professional organic gardener. She created gardens at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, opened her own organic gardening business, and worked with nonprofits to create gardens for lower income communities. Here, too, are interesting thoughts. Nolan describes her first job and her computer mishaps. Technology didn’t appear to be a big part of the commune lifestyle—Nolan states “The world had leaped into the digital age while I’d been pulling weeds.”

She includes her gardening mistakes as well, such as her panic over a garden full of nut grass, something that is described as a “particularly noxious weed”. She also talks about the people she meets—a young boy who was in occupational therapy for early stage ADHD who was completely “focused and absorbed” when gardening and a woman who wanted an organic garden because cancer runs in her family.

Not surprisingly, Nolan also is an advocate for eating locally grown food and includes a fair share of research on various subjects relating to food, health, and the environment, from lead poisoning to cancer causing chemicals to energy: “One fast-food cheeseburger, according to one estimate, generates between seven and fourteen pounds of carbon dioxide, versus roughly half a pound of carbon dioxide per pound of many fresh-grown vegetables. Processed foods take an environmental toll: 16 percent of the total energy currently used in the U.S. food system goes to processing.” 

In a world where books about food, carbon footprints, and urban gardening are popping on an almost overwhelming basis, Nolan sets herself (and her book) a part a bit by showing how a regular person can exact change. For much of the book, Nolan is both a single parent and in a financially insecure place. At one time she thinks “This is absurd. I’m a thirty-five-year-old unemployed single mom who was at one point was on track to go to an Ivy League school. Now I’m not qualified for an entry-level clerical job.”

Once she becomes a professional gardener, her financial stability increases, but it takes a toll on her personal life and at one point, her daughter screams “This house is disgusting…We can’t live like this…I hate you.”  Through it all, though, Nolan maintains optimism—even though it feels a little forced at times.

Further, Nolan is also in this for life—her story is not an experiment to see if she can live a year without buying anything that isn’t locally grown or something of that nature. Nolan clearly wants to present organic gardening and eating well as doable, and for the most part, she succeeds. Some of her detailed descriptions of creating raised beds on rooftops might be a little much for the beginning gardener, but Nolan finishes the book with a series of tips (e.g., How to grow a food garden in ten steps and ten favorite gardening products) and includes “certain general guidelines for success—five principles that will help [people] grow food anywhere, whether on a rural farm, in the city, or in the suburbs.”

Nolan’s story is inspiring, her tales of the commune strangely fascinating yet often disturbing, and her statistics impressively frightening. In the beginning all this information blends well. Nolan moves, for example, from a nervous reunion with friends (after leaving the commune) to a discussion of how outsiders were treated at the commune (and how members of the commune were treated if they were too close to people on the outside). Later in the book, some of the leaps between the present, the past, and the research aren’t quite as seamless.

Part memoir, part lecture, and part how to, From the Ground Up is as thoughtful, complicated and chaotic as the gardening (and life) journey it describes. Perhaps more importantly, Nolan’s encouraging tone, honest style, and practical advice do make you believe that no matter where you live or what you know (or don’t know about plants) you can create an edible garden.

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