This year, I've spent a number of weekends tending to the gardens that line the front, side and back yards of our house. Until last week, we had experienced a cool and sometimes wet spring, weather that helps weeds and vines as much as it does bushes and flowers.
Anyone who has tried to maintain a garden knows the routine: till, plant, cultivate, trim, weed, repeat. There's a healthy balance in how often you "repeat." Done too often, you feel like all you do is invest in the promise of a garden. Done too little, you wind up with a tree growing through your fence.
Plants offer a persistent reminder that we're just visiting the land. Invasive sets of barbed vines take over the back fence each spring, are removed in a homeowner assault, only to return, sometimes before the end of summer.
Behind our house, trees planted as saplings 17 years ago have grown to give the entire back yard its afternoon shade. In 1995, I had no sense that we'd still be here in 2012, but I planted the trees anyway.
I remember the hours it took to dig through dense, packed clay to create a hole with enough nutrients to sustain even those small trees. There were three, one for each of the kids, all of whom still claim to know which tree was planted in their honor.
Last fall, a late-October snowstorm damaged all three trees, one badly. The weight of the snow, carried by leaves that were weeks from dropping, snapped an eight-inch branch from the trunk of the tree closest to the house, taking our electricity with it.
Power was restored a few days later, but the damaged trees are still healing, slowly. I was hoping they'd bounce back, but trees take time.
Gardens take time, too. Time, and a bit of protection from an overzealous dog. They are an investment that provides benefits in the mid-term and value, when the time comes to sell this little piece of New Jersey.
It's easy to stretch a metaphor, and I have been guilty of that a few times this year. But gardening does feel a bit like journalism, a point made quite well by Sean Roach, who told of his experience with AOL's Patch in the March/April issue of Columbia Journalism Review.
Both gardening and journalism require investments (well) ahead of dividends. Tended, each can become sustaining. But the benefits of a garden accrue to the owner; the benefits of local journalism accrue to the community.
It seems clear to me that ad-driven (traffic) strategies for online journalism are unlikely to generate enough revenue to sustain a high-quality effort. The financial success of traffic-driven sites masks an overreliance on free labor and opinion disguised as expertise.
Ultimately, news consumers need to be willing to pay for reported information. Unrewarded, investors go elsewhere. Cause and effect can be elusive, but I think communities of any size are worse off when their gardens go untended.