Where Have all the Gardens Gone?

Coming from a climate extreme in its seasonal temperature changes, I find tropical and subtropical places fascinating.

What would it be like to be able to grow fruits and vegetables all year round, not just in the brief growing season we have here in northern New England? The notion of citrus, avocados, mangos, bananas and other tropical fruits right in one’s own backyard amazes me.

Which is why I am always so puzzled that when I travel around St John, it appears that very few people bother to plant any of these trees for their own benefit, and when I pester people with questions about these plants, few seem to know or care about them. Things grow so very fast in a tropical environment like St John. One could have fruit bearing citrus trees in just a couple years and vegetables could be there for the harvesting year round, yet on St Thomas and St John I saw only one vegetable garden.

The one vegetable garden I found was at the Annaberg plantation ruins in the USVI National Park. During all my other trips to St. John, the demostration garden at Annaberg lay fallow, but this time a lovely man had brought back the fruit and vegetable patch and was growing soursop, passionfruit, bananas, sugar cane, papayas, and other traditional fruits and vegetables. He recognized me as a farmer, perhaps because I was embracing each plant like a long lost cousin, and happily took me on an extensive tour of his garden creation. Had luggage size and regulations allowed, I think the dear man would have loaded me up with cuttings from every plant in his creation.
During my trip, I heard tell of other gardens in the Caribbean, but not many. A magazine article I read on the plane noted that the Caribbean now imports $3 billion in food each year, and inter-island trade restrictions further complicate the situation, making it likely that the mango in my St John smoothie was not arriving fresh from nearby St Lucia but was a frozen import from the US.

The article highlighted two chefs, one in Jamaica and one in the British Virgin Islands, who were trying to use only local organic produce at their resorts. Their tactics included stopping at every mango tree they could find to ask the owners if they could buy all its fruit as well as offering to pay people to plant vegetable gardens, promising to buy whatever they grew, no matter what it was. While I found the article interesting, it did not exactly seem like a green revolution, though that was the phrase bandied about in the article. There were, after all, only two determined chef profiled, both of whom described it as near impossible to do what they were trying to do: serve local foods grown by local people.

I am sorry, but that feels wrong to me.

My concern about a region that can grow its own food but doesn’t isn’t just about disappointment that others are not interested in plants the way I am. A community that grows its own food has a measure of security and self sufficiency that is lost when the growing of its food is given over to people far, far away. When jobs shift from growing food for local people to taking care of tourists, the situation grows exponentially worse.

The last time I was in the Virgin Islands, three years ago, there were seven cruise ships in St. Thomas’s Charlotte Amalie harbor during Christmas week. This year there was one. The economy of the region is completely dependent on the travel patterns of people living thousands of miles away, and those people can’t afford to travel as they could several years ago. An island with no food production and dependent on shipments of imported food and steady infusions of tourists for its very survival doesn’t feel grounded or secure to me. It feels like a place hoodwinked into taking care of the wrong things like hot showers for visitors that may or may not show up.

One night during our stay, the power went off on St John and St Thomas. A backup generator made dinner possible in the campground dining pavilion, but civility was in short supply among the campers. In a campground, I had expected people to be able to go with the flow a little better. We all had flashlights and they were feeding us. What was the big deal? I could only imagine how things were going down the way at Caneel Bay, the high end resort on the island.

On our way across St Thomas to the airport for our return trip home, we passed FEMA headquarters. Short term help is in place both for the occasional power outage and for hurricanes. But what happens if travel patterns change for good? If I was a person living on St John, I would be up at Annaberg learning all I could from that lovely gardening gentleman, and I would take his cuttings too and get my garden started. And back here at the farm, I am thinking about how to extend our growing season and how to grow more of our own food. It’s not just about security to me, but about something deeper. Somehow, growing more of our own food makes me feel more grounded in my own life and more grateful for all its particulars, even the extremes of temperature.

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