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Helping honeybees is one reason, but there are many more.

AFTER THE SCREENING of Vanishing of the Bees — a documentary discussing Colony Collapse Disorder — a local Nelson bee farmer took the stage to answer questions. I watched on as a lady stood up and asked, “since residents aren’t allowed to keep bee colonies in their yards, what can we do to help the situation?”

His answer was simple: “Plant a garden.” In the documentary, it was concluded that one of the main causes for the phenomenon of the mass disappearance of honeybee colonies is the use of pesticides in our current food system, namely for the agricultural practice of monoculture. As Michael Pollan says in the movie, “[Colony collapse] is one of the signs — a really unmistakable sign — that our food system is unsustainable.”

By planting gardens, we can help keep honeybee populations strong.

By planting gardens, we can help keep honeybee populations strong. Why is this important? Because insect-pollinated plants make up around one-third of the human diet, with honeybees responsible for 80% of that. The Guardian lists planting “bee-friendly” plants in the garden as one of 10 ways to help honeybees.

But besides helping out our friendly pollinators, I have a few other reasons why I wanted to learn how to garden.

Increasing food prices

Global food prices are at a record high, partly due to crop loss around the world from storms, flooding, and droughts. Rising oil prices and economic instability are also contributing to the high prices. Compound that with the fact that income isn’t going up at all. From the years 1998 to 2008, the median income in the US did not rise. In 1998, the median income was $51,295. In 2008? $50,303. It was even worse in 2009 at $49,777*.

In Canada, experts are predicting a 5-7% increase at the grocery checkout by the end of this year. Strong competition and a strong dollar (making imports cheaper) have kept the prices at bay so far, but a correction is expected. Oxfam predicts that the average price of staple foods will double by 2030:

The world is entering an era of permanent food crisis, which is likely to be accompanied by political unrest and will require radical reform of the international food system.

Sometimes gardens can take a season or two to produce, to get the soil healthy and to work out the bugs (pun intended), especially for a beginner. Start now.

Our food system is broken

Monoculture. Photo: FeatheredTar

It’s not hard to conclude that there’s something wrong with our current food system. Processed and engineered foods, unsustainable farming practices, rising diet-related illnesses, and polluted environments are some of the symptoms. In our never-ending search to get more for less, we’ve created a system that will eventually fail us.

I don’t take food lightly. For something that is so important to our health and livelihoods, everyone needs to get on board and become not only more aware of what’s going into our bodies, but what impact the food we’re getting has on the environment. Our quest to provide more food for less cost is a short-sighted one and the repercussions will eventually be felt, if not already.

Oran Hesterman, agriculture scientist and author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System For All, says in this article:

As individuals we can make different choices about what we purchase and what we eat. We can choose to support a more local and sustainable agriculture and can decide to eat in a way that keeps us healthier…We can plant backyard and community gardens. We can shop at farmers’ markets. All of these individual actions can and will make a difference in our own lives and in the food system…

I’ve found that starting in my backyard is an important first step in switching gears and raising awareness.

The Obamas are doing it

In 2008, Michelle Obama started the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during WWII. She wanted to start the garden to teach children about eating healthy and to help in the battle with America’s obesity problem. Talking about their kids’ reaction to the garden, Mrs. Obama said, “They started schooling me and lecturing me about what I should be eating, and what a carrot does, and what broccoli does. And sometimes they look at my plate in disgust now.”

It’s proof that you don’t even need a lot of space to yield a good harvest. The White House garden is only 1100 square feet and has produced over 1000 pounds of veggies that have been used to feed the Obamas and their guests.

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ~ Michael Pollan

Eating organic

Given a choice, I am confident that everyone would prefer to eat organic vegetables. The price, of course, is another matter. I would love to eat only organic, but I can’t afford it. (Correction: I could afford it…at the expense of other things I like to do. It’s a conscious choice.) While I realize that the price of organic and fair trade produce better represents the “true” cost of food, when presented with items that are a fraction of the cost I usually can’t resist to go with the cheaper option.

My raspberry bush.

The other day I picked some raspberries from a bush in my backyard. It filled a small bowl and I thought to myself, that would probably cost about $6 in the grocery store. When it comes time to harvest some of the other items in my garden — zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes — there will be a lot of money saved.

And while I know I can’t be fully self-sufficient yet, what I can grow in the summer does make the option to buy organic more realistic as I can supplement, lowering the average cost.

And I know that what I’m growing is truly organic. Last year the NY Times reported on an audit of the National Organic Program that showed they let companies continue selling products labeled organic that really weren’t. On average, it took them 15 months to enforce recommendations by the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. In one case they let the company completely slide.

So how can you know if something is really organic? Grow it yourself.

Get children excited about eating vegetables

There is a program called Community Roots** in Boulder, Colorado. 13 front yards in a small neighbourhood full of ranchers have been converted into micro-farms. Homeowners have donated their useless grassy lawns to be turned into gardens and also provide the water for irrigation. Members plant and manage the gardens and in return receive a share of the harvest with extra produce sold in the Boulder County Farmer’s Market.

“Now the kids clamor to eat chard, kale, and grilled zucchini for dinner.”

Member Camille Hook has a son who used to be “vegetable-challenged.” That is until he planted in the garden and invited friends over to help harvest. Said Camille, “Now the kids clamor to eat chard, kale, and grilled zucchini for dinner.”

Slow down

We live in a hyper-fast world these days. We can get things done at lightning speed, usually meaning we cram more things into a single day. What I love about gardening is that it forces me to slow down, to get off the computer, and to interact with nature right in my backyard.

I find it amazing watching food grow in front of my eyes. It’s like standing at the top of a mountain. I appreciate the view and my surroundings a lot more when I hike up rather than take a gondola. The satisfaction of eating something that I grew from a seed is immeasurable.

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About The Author

Carlo Alcos

Carlo is the Dean of Education at MatadorU and a Managing Editor at Matador. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He lives in Nelson, British Columbia.

  • Michelle Schusterman

    Awesome piece. I just started a small shared community garden for the first time this year, and it’s been so educational. And I’m SO glad you pointed out that it’s not that most of us “can’t afford” organic, that it’s a choice (not for everyone for sure, but it’s amazing how many complaints you hear about how buying local/organic is too expensive from someone buying a $5 latte).

  • Kristijan Cindrić

    Dear Carlo, I just adore your articles and let me say this is one of the finest.
    This is my first year I started growing my own vegetables (tomatoes, paprika, onions, salad and strawberries) and for me it’s a very deep and grounding experience. When I’m in the garden I’m meditating on the smells and colors, shapes, textures and insects buzzing around. The work also keeps me present in the moment.
    And not only you eat healthier, you start to appreciate and be more thankful for the food you find on your table.
    Thank you and keep up the good work!


    • Carlo Alcos

      Kind words Kristijan…thank you very much, I really appreciate it.

  • Turner Wright

    This is really comprehensive, Carlo. Do you think we can turn back the clock? I just assumed food would keep getting cheaper and less nutritious as time went on. Even more so if we end up destroying the honeybee population.

    • Ian MacKenzie

      I don’t think there’s a turning back the clock… it’s more about re-orienting ourselves to a true relationship with our food.

  • Darrin

    Great piece.  The connection between disappearing bee populations and the increase in pesticide produce is humbling. 

    I have found another reason to garden.  I’ve noticed that the act of raking or hoeing a garden bed actually makes my back feel better, not worse, than sitting in a chair all day.   No gym visit needed.  And that’s not even counting the crisp cukes and juicy tomatoes I get to eat from it.

    • Winston O’Toole

      I’m not certain how much of a connection that is. We’ve been using pesticides since the 1930s. The decline of bee populations on a massive scale is a new phenomena. While pesticides may be contributing, they certainly are not the cause.

      More likely, the spread of disease is the source of the decline.

      Feel free to speculate on the effects of pesticides on bee immune systems though, there could potentially be a connection there.

      • Carlo Alcos

        Thanks Winston. There were a number of potential reasons in the movie for the cause of CCD but to me it seemed like they really focused on the use of pesticides in monocultures. They had this one shot where the screen was split in two and showed two honeybees on two sunflowers, one treated with pesticide, one not…the bee on the untreated one moved around methodically and steadily. The other one looked like it was “drunk” and eventually fell off.

        But yes, there are definitely people out there who don’t believe pesticides is the main culprit…some think close proximity to cell phone towers or power transmission lines is the biggest threat. Or maybe bad practices in the commercial beekeeping industry.

        • Winston O’Toole

          Interesting. I’m going to have to check the documentary out.

  • Sarah

    Carlo, this is amazing. I have really been itching to get a real garden going, but I live in a condo, so I don’t have any dirt of my very own… Instead, I’ve been growing indoor hydroponically (I love my Aerogarden!), and while this doesn’t do a whole lot to help the bees or fix our ridiculously messed up food system, having perfect 2-person-sized harvests of herbs, small fruits, and veggies at my disposal has already paid for itself.

    • Carlo Alcos

      Nice Sarah.

  • Abbie Mood

    LOVE this Carlo – so well researched and well said :) Totally inspires me to join the community garden down the street!

  • Hal Amen

    Gardening rocks.
    Great piece, Carlo.


    Great article.  Also, great link – plant a row to end hunger.  That’s something we could all do without much sweat.  I asked my hoa at condos if I could plant some veggies behind the condo on some grassy area and they said yes!!!!!  I will be busy as soon as it cools a little.

  • Tam

    Brilliant piece!!

  • Teodora Vegh

    It is very inspirational indeed. This spring i have planted my first banana tree, and some radishes. All the radishes were eaten by snails and my banana tree is being pulled ut by the typhoon…
    it is difficult not to be intimidated by all that. and it is a loss, because i was talking to those plants every morning (i watered them too, though). But i hope next year’s harvest gonna be better. I would love to eat my own veggies too! 

    • Carlo Alcos

      Keep on keeping on! Sometimes I play guitar out in the backyard…I like to think it helps them too ;) Good luck!

  • DD

    As a dedicated wanderer and an organic garden lover I am constantly torn.   I planted a nice garden last year even though I knew we were going to be gone a lot.  I told several of my neighbors that they could pick all they wanted if they would just weed a little.  When we came home a month later everything was completely engulfed in weeds and nothing had been picked.   I pulled weeds for the few days we were home, picked what was ripe and distributed it among my friends and neighbors.  I reminded everyone there were veggies to be had and left again.  When we came back in 3 weeks it was the same story.   When we departed the next time  I turned off the drip system and let it wither.  

  • anon666


  • Philip Koch

    Lees bietjie hier waarbegin ons tuin mmaak!

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