Posted on March 18, 2015 at 6:00 am
I recently sat down for lunch with my dear friend Mary. While Mary is the last person I’d call contrary—her garden grows and grows. Mary has transformed her standard small city lot into a lush fruit and vegetable paradise.
Years ago, my elderly neighbor brought over a pepper plant and told me I needed a garden. I told her that I had two small children and didn’t need any more responsibilities! But after I watched that little thing grow all summer, I was hooked. The following January I read the entire gardening section at my local library—checking out four or five books at a time—because I was going to feed my kids with fresh organic food, and I was going to do it right. I had seen my grandfather’s garden and it was awesome, so my original thought was that my garden would look like that. But the more I read about how to grow more vegetables, the more I realized that the French intensive method would grow much more food than traditional rows. So now I have three-foot-wide rows, separated by tiles one-foot-wide that my husband put down for me, so we don’t ever have to weed the pathways, and the rest of it is raised. Every year we add sterilized steer manure, organic fertilizer, and our own “jet fuel” compost that the chickens have added their nitrogen to.
I love that—jet fuel compost!
It really is.
After I read everything, I took a shovel to the back yard. I lifted the grass and marked off the beds. I ordered plants and seeds and very methodically measured everything out. The French intensive theory is that the leaves of the mature plants will touch each other and shade the ground. It helps with weed suppression and evaporation. Now that I’m more experienced, I can just eyeball how far apart to put things—it’s a bean seed so it goes about that far apart. We started with 7 garden beds. As it’s progressed I’ve gotten more bushes and berries. I figure it’s a good investment—anything that is going to grow fruit for about 30 years, like a raspberry—is a good investment for the garden. At first I thought it was a lot of money to spend in January, but then when I looked at the prices of a pound of berries, I realized I was much better off—and I know I haven’t sprayed them with any herbicide, pesticide, or fungicide.
Every year the garden gets a little bigger. We walk around the yard and think “That patch of lawn doesn’t need to be there—I think we can plant something tastier.” As we’re getting older, we’re looking into permaculture for the front yard.
You do everything organic?
About 95%–I do like the Miracle Grow potting soil for my pepper and tomato starts. That’s the only non-organic thing I use.
Are you growing heirlooms? Hybrids? Seed saving?
Just a little bit of seed saving. I started with Gurney’s Select seeds that are very hardy—a turnkey seed that is expected to do well across the U.S. I’ve started adding different seeds from different companies that I like. I’m always on the search for something that’s prolific, healthy, and will grow vibrantly in the garden. If I try a bush I’ll give it two chances in the garden—if it can’t make it after two years, then it’s not hardy enough for my garden.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Don’t start too early! I goofed one year and planted my tomatoes in January and they were so tall when I put them in the garden that the wind just whipped them back and forth, even inside the tomato cages they were just getting pummeled.
I had a cold frame that my husband built but I didn’t keep it watered enough. And if you’re not careful with cold frames you can cook what you’re trying to grow—and that’s what I did. I had put plants in the cold frame and wasn’t watering enough and didn’t pop it in the day to vent—so I cooked everything.
If I were to start a garden now—I wouldn’t dig up the lawn. I’d start with lasagna gardening—layer up compost, peat moss, leaves, and steer manure until I had maybe 12 inches in the fall, and then let it break down over the winter. We did that in the side yard it worked really well.
You’ve always fed your family pretty healthfully—you plant things in your garden that my kids have never seen on their plates before. How do you get your family to eat things like Swiss chard?
It’s all about how it’s prepared and served. I like my vegetables barely cooked—more stir fried. Get it warm and cover it with a little soy sauce and sesame seeds and they’ll eat anything that way. I also make a squash recipe with cinnamon and apple juice—it tastes like pie.
That was the first time I was able to convince my kids to eat squash—at your house with the cinnamon and apple juice! You also have chickens. Why did you add them?
I read a book about how to live sustainably, and the author talked about the circle inside the garden. Chickens can eat the leftover greens and help fertilize the gardens. The compost really heated up and the plants really took off once the nitrogen was added at a high level on a regular basis. You couldn’t put your hand in the middle of our compost bin in August, you’d get burned. It’s hot.
The chickens roam freely—do they help with keeping the pests down?
Yes they do—we have little orange grubs in the garden, and when the chickens were tiny, we’d dig up the grubs, put them in the palm of our hand, and go show them to the chickens. That one—get that one.
Search and destroy!
Anytime there is a bug that we don’t want in the garden, we’ll pick up one of the little hens, walk her over, show her the bug, and she’ll gobble it up. They won’t eat everything—stink bugs must taste nasty because the chickens won’t touch them.
No eating these chickens; they are pets with names. My children would never speak to me again if I said, “This is Sweetie Pie on the table.” Eggs or no, they’ll always contribute to the garden. As long as they walk around and eat they are contributing. And they are delightfully entertaining, which is another benefit.
The chickens are beloved household members, who also lay eggs and provide fertilizer. What are their names?
Well, Abigail was our best layer and passed away last year, and the three newest hens are Angel, Precious, and Darling. The older hens are Phoenix and Sweetie Pie. Sweetie Pie is so gentle that we took her to daycare to meet the children.
You’re producing a lot of food for your family of 4. How are you preserving?
We have a dehydrator, and it’s really easy to turn an awful lot of food into little canning jars of dried food—for soup or snacks. We did a lot of pieces of peaches and apricots last year, which are just like candy. And of course we dried the zucchini influx.
You’ve inspired our family—I love coming over to see your garden and watch how it’s growing. What’s on your recommended reading list for a new gardener?
Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier with contributions from Jonathan Bates
The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem by Christopher Shein with Julie Thompson
Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew