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The Philosophy of the Economics of the Garden

SCENE ONE: (A changing room of a cricket club some time in the 1990s.) Two of the older players are discussing vegetable gardening. A younger man, overhearing their conversation, remarks sarcastically, “Grow-your-own. I bet that must save you loads of money.”

Seen from that narrow angle it does all look slightly ridiculous. If you are lucky enough to have accumulated some assets they are likely to go up (or down) by a few thousand pounds in value in the course of a day. If you write articles, as I do, you may be paid a few hundred pounds for one. But what would the street value of your produce be even on a good day? A fiver?

SCENE TWO: (La France Profonde. A restaurant whose founding chef is now world famous. Michelin have awarded it three rosettes for decades.) We are dining among the very rich who are picking at their food and looking gratifyingly disgruntled with life. As a second course we have one of the establishment’s “signature” dishes, asparagus in a cream sauce with morilles (known, but rarely seen, as morels in English). It is October so I dread to think where the asparagus comes from, but I suppose if you have a signature dish you have to source it somehow. I ask my wife how she would rate the dish out of ten. “Five” is the bored reply. How about the asparagus she gets at home? “Always at least nine, often ten.” My sternest critic has transformed into my biggest fan so I had better publicise the recipe:

- cut asparagus

- wash dirt from bottom end

- cook for thirty second in a microwave steamer

- serve with butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper

(Time from ground to mouth, two minutes max.)

Two reflections, faintly connected. The first is that really good asparagus, unlike the stuff in shops, is delicious raw, but it must be given a burst of intense steamy heat in order to combine it with butter and the condiments. The second, a version of public choice theory, is that if the trade and profession of chef exist it is very much in the interests of those involved to establish the orthodoxy that really good food is about the skill of the chef. The alternative view is that no amount of skill can rival top quality fresh produce. The orthodoxy is promulgated very widely, not least on television, Michel Roux’s use of the phrase “fine dining” being near-definitive in this matter. But in support of the alternative I would say that a majority of the really outstanding tastes I have experienced have been because of freshness alone. For example, pineapple, however presented in a restaurant, is not something I would ever get excited about. But the pineapple sliced and eaten in seconds which a farmer gave to my youngest son and myself on the Thai-Burmese border is something that I think we will both remember for the rest of our lives.

This suggests a value of one’s asparagus at 3-rosette prices of around £25 per portion. A minimal estimate of four of this sort of fresh portions per week would suggest garden produce worth approximately £5000 per annum. There is another aspect which is less conjectural and has had a very direct bearing on our family finances. It is that we only eat out either when travelling or because of social obligations. We don’t go to restaurants or order takeaways just because we’re hungry. Why pay for something when you get a better product free? as Sternest Critic is wont to ask. By comparison I have a contemporary who neither gardens nor cooks in any serious way who tells me he spends in excess of £12000 in restaurants every year. We spend about a quarter of that, suggesting a net gain figure from garden produce of £9000.

The most useful recipe from our garden is what I will call Garibaldini because that was what the dish that inspired it was called when I first came across it in a restaurant in Lazio in 1980. It has the supreme merit that, if you garden sensibly, it can be eaten pretty much 365 days a year (though heavy snow is obviously a problem) and it can be different every time. We would look to eat it at least once a week. It’s probably good for you.

INGREDIENTS

Group A: olive oil, fresh stem garlic, oregano or marjoram.

Group B: any combination of succulent herbs according to taste and season. These include rocket, basil, parsley and wild celery.

Group C: Any ONE very young, very fresh vegetable. Can include broccoli, haricots, broad beans, mangetouts or asparagus, for example.

METHOD

- sauté the garlic and oregano, roughly chopped, in the olive oil until the garlic is tender.

- add the succulent herbs, finely chopped.

- add the vegetable, roughly chopped and heat.

- serve with fresh pasta and grated hard cheese (pecorino would be my own preference). Drink robust red wine.

NOTES

1. There are no chemical reactions involved here so quantities don’t matter, but they’re usually fairly small.

2. Only the Group A ingredients really need cooking in any serious sense so it should be easy to avoid over-cooking.

3. Chop means chop! By hand! Mechanical devices make the ingredients stringy or mushy or both.

This is, of course, a close relation to vegetarian dishes you will find all over Italy including aglio e olio

and pesto. It is the meal I’d ask for if I was about to be executed – though I’d probably insist on cooking it myself.

SCENE THREE (Heathrow Airport 1993). My colleague from Tbilisi comes through Arrivals and after the first formalities of greeting he shows me his hands, blackened by constant contact with the earth. According to the OECD the Georgian economy has declined to 17% of its value at peak, a record. An academic salary is worth only a small handful of dollars; the proportion of people getting their sustenance primarily from the land has gone up from under 20% to over 40% in four years. This includes many academic employees and it certainly my colleague. He hates it: growing vegetables for him is a waste of life which stops him getting on with his career, but he has children to feed. There could be no greater contrast of spirit with my gardening. One of the great joys for me is to get back from work and to go straight into the garden, browsing, weeding and picking. This is the difference between the amateur and the professional – or between the dependent and the dilettante. It reminds me of my own researches into amateur and professional sportsmen and of the rugby player who defined the difference as being between, “Oh great – tomorrow’s Saturday” and “Oh shit – tomorrow’s Saturday”.

The national income accounting of the gardener is thus a deeply ambiguous task. It starts with the question of whether what looks like labour is really labour at all or a recreation which is a benefit rather than a cost. It must consider radically different valuations for fresh produce and acknowledge a unique and peculiar range of opportunity costs. You can easily look up figures which suggest all sorts of spurious precision about gardening. In 2011 the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners estimated a 250 square metre gardening space to be capable of producing £1362 in value. An estimate from the University of Washington suggests that the homegrown is worth about two thirds of a billion dollars in the USA. One from London estate agents suggests that the quarter (approximately) of London properties which grow some food are worth on average around £100,000 more than the three quarters which don’t, though it is blindingly obvious that, if true, this may well be a litany of spurious correlations.

It might seem obvious and irrefutable that economics could not properly assess the “value” of gardening and that there are many ambiguities to the question and unresolved philosophical questions. But generations of people have been taught an economic orthodoxy which incorporates ways of valuation. One of the best selling textbooks of the twentieth cetury, for example, the Nobel Laureate Kenneth Boulding’s Economic Analysis, presents as uncontestable and as an implication of the theory of comparative advantage that we are better off if doctors leave their gardens to gardeners (even if they are better at gardening than the gardeners are). This sort of accounting basis is bult into ideas like “economic growth” which are b uilt into the policy assumptions which govern us. They ought to be subject to much more thorough and regular scepticism than they are.

Lincoln Allison