From The Backyard: A Suburban Woman’s Pursuit of the Farm Life - Farm City Entry 4
As I’ve already mentioned, I dove headfirst into this urban farming thing. Fortunately, once on my rocky journey, I had some words of guidance from some wise folks who have done this already. They helped me steer around pitfalls, and reassured me that all this sweat was going to grow into something edible and eventually meaningful.
Farm City, by Novella Carpenter, gave me the push I needed to go beyond the potted tomato plant (which by the way is a beautiful thing). This gal went whole hog, literally, she raised and ate her own hogs. But there is a backdrop to this story you must hear to understand how sensible, and at the same, how revolutionary this gal is.
Novella (I know I should refer to her as Ms. Carpenter, but I love that name Novella so much I just need to use it) and her partner in crime, Bill, settled into their downtown Oakland apartment specifically because it had a vacant lot next door. Over the course of the story she uses that space, her balcony, her little yard, and a room in her house to raise food. She begins right away with the business of hijacking the lot space for a rich vegetable garden. Her neighbors, a diverse and open-minded group, don’t seem to mind at all when she dumps copious amounts of horse manure into the lot, but by that point, they too are benefitting from the shared bounty. By the end of her tale, there are plants and animals of all edible varieties living happily and filling every available space around her.
Midway through reading this book I was not only convinced that I could raise food for my family, but that it would not require that I be a master gardener or even a green thumb. I could do it with attention and labor, and by god I actually have those! But this wasn’t a self-help book, far from it. In her story, Ms. Novella struggles through failures and disappointments with self-effacing humor and an innocent stubbornness. No matter what people say, she is going to grab that crate of lettuce out of the trash behind the Vietnamese restaurant because she needs to feed her rabbits. And, as she waddles after her wandering turkeys down King Boulevard, you realize you are dealing with a true devil-may-care attitude. In short, Novella is a refreshing answer to all those stooges and prims who tell you to make your garden perfect or get out.
So if you have ever felt like telling your HOA to bite it, and/or you want to see the best in people of all walks and stations, than pick this one up. Farm City is more than inspiration for those with dirt under their nails. It is a story of dedication to an ideal, and the good things that can happen when you let your natural enthusiasm take over
From The Backyard: A Suburban Woman’s Pursuit of the Farm Life.
The $64 Dollar Tomato, by William Alexander, had a great point. Growing one tomato can be much more expensive than picking one up at the farmers market. Frankly, this book had me fretting. As a teacher who makes only enough money to whittle away gradually at my credit card debt (anyone with me here?), the last thing I wanted to do was rack up more debt trying to build something that had no guarantee of success. Let’s face it- a trip through Armstrong’s Nursery can rack up several hundred dollars very quickly, and one lucky gopher can reduce that purchase to shreds in one night. So I had to improvise if I was going to get anywhere with my farm dream.
Since I have been at this for eight years, I have already had many projects go down the gopher’s gullet. But, through research, tenacity, and a willingness to grab free junk off the side of the road, I have stumbled upon several cheap ways to build a relatively-gopher-proof raised-bed garden. They aren’t pretty, they wouldn’t be featured in Martha Stewart’s rag, they hardly passed muster with my husband. But they work, and really, all plants care about is the soil, water, and sunshine. So, take these ideas and improve upon them. Please.
The following are seven planting exhibits in my yard and driveway (yes, even the driveway) in order from most expensive and labor intensive, to those most appealing to broke and lazy gardeners like me.
Exhibit 1 - This raised-bed garden was built right on top of my lawn, which of course is a great way to go since tearing up lawn is a pain in the grass. I paid a few bucks for materials, and followed some simple directions in my BHG Step By Step Yard and Garden Projects book. Once the wall was in place. I filled it up with tons of good quality soil and started planting. Because it gets nearly 12 hours of sun, tomatoes love growing here.
Now, we need to have a quick discussion about soil. Because to grow plants you need lots of good soil, and last I checked, Lowe’s is not giving it away for free. Buying by the yard is a lot cheaper in the long run, but if you choose to have, say 5 cubic yards delivered and dumped onto your driveway, you will have to hear about it from your family for the next 6 months as the pile shrinks slowly, wheelbarrow by heavy wheelbarrow. The best way to get nutrient-rich soil is to make it, through composting and vermiculture, but that is another article for another day.
Exhibit 2 - In my next raised-bed project, you will notice a dramatic shift toward the cheap. I took that phrase “raised-bed” literally, and filled up an old bed frame. By turning an old futon frame upside down and using wooden slats, and some wood scraps from my chicken coop project (there’s another story too) to build up the sides, I made a new planting area. Again, this just went on top of the lawn, which I wasn’t watering or mowing anyway, so good riddance!
Exhibit 3 - My next step down the path of reclaimed trash agriculture was six tires begged off of a worry-wort mechanic at the neighborhood car shop. He told me to keep it hush-hush since he wasn’t supposed to say yes, but he was pretty sure that the tire bin out back was unlocked. Six tires loaded into the minivan and I was on my way to a thriving cucumber plant and a black raspberry stalk that I keep pleading with. Yes, I talk to my plants.
Then I drove past a house under construction. And lo, with that Free sign hanging there like a cold beer on a hot day, there sat a plant bed in the making – a crate that once held floor tile. Exhibit 4 - Despite the protests of my mortified pre-teen, I screeched to a halt and proceeded to heave, push, cram, and dent the interior of my minivan to bring this baby home. The heaving and denting continued when we got home, as the crate was forced against its will into its present location. Now, as unsightly as it is, I remain faithful that the flowers growing in it will transform this roadside junk into rustic magic.
Exhibit 5 - This is my version of an artistic trellis for beans and climbers. Yes, that is rebar. Have I mentioned that I am cheap?
Exhibit 6 - My most recent installation actually came from my mother, who would never, I mean NEVER, allow my reclamation sensibilities to cross the threshold of her home. What I call recycled or repurposed structures, she calls junk. Of course, she has, for years, been cultivating a gorgeous, textbook-perfect garden, which is the envy of her neighborhood, and served as my wedding locale way back when. So she may have a point. Anyway, she came across a web tip on hay bale gardening (http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/8453/video-make-a-straw-bale-garden-bed )and thought of me, and within a week I had it set up with the classic Native American Trio – corn, beans, and squash. Again, cheap and easy, although I really needed those nice fellows who loaded the bales into the minivan when I was cutting my hands on the cords trying to yank them out.
Exhibit 7 - The final chapter on this saga of thrift and tacky ingenuity is my ode to the black plastic pot. They are large enough for about 3 plants, they drain well, and inexpensive, but surprisingly hard to buy. Honestly, I would love to have a collection of unique, large, vibrant ceramic pots, but this isn’t Better Homes and Gardens, not even close. There is no way I can grow a large quantity of food, when a single container costs as much as a week’s groceries. So I went in search of those large black pots. Nurseries sell plants IN them, but they don’t sell THEM, not at Lowe’s or Home Depot, or Walmart, or any of the Anderson’s, god forbid. I even tried getting them directly from a landscaping company. Finally I stumbled upon the right yard sale, so now I am happily stocked at less than 50 cents a pot, and look at these beautiful veggies!
So there you have it, a complete tour of my garden. I hope that among your reactions of, “God, how tacky!” you found one idea that you can better. Good luck!
Read the whole series!
From The Backyard: A Suburban Woman’s Pursuit of the Farm Life.
I could begin this by saying something sanctimonious like, “As I sit sipping a cocktail garnished with my home-grown mint.” Or something humble like, “Before I begin, let me confess that I have dragged chicken shit into the house again.” Both are true, and both tell only a fraction of the story, so let me instead say, “It all began with shucking corn.”
If I have hooked you with that, then you are a like-minded do-it yourselfer like myself. And you will also understand the chagrin I felt after realizing my children had spent 2 solid weeks of summer vacation playing Wii. Four days, I can understand. A week is tolerable. But the final straw was when I asked my older daughter to help me shuck some corn for dinner. When she said she would rather play more video games, and I said, “THAT’S IT! WE’RE STARTING A FARM!”
What you need to understand is that starting a farm was more of a metaphor than a reality for me at that moment. I had never lived on a farm, worked on a farm, or even spent a full day on a farm. But I had a romantic notion that farm life meant purposeful and healthy outdoor activity. Wasn’t that exactly what my kids needed? And the next moment, I realized that I had fallen into that quintessential parent trap of “You said it, so you gotta do it!”
Why oh why do parents always have to follow through.
I admit, I sort of wanted it. And sure enough, it wasn’t a day later that I packed the kids in the minivan, and drove up to the Country Feed Store and loaded 3 chicks into a laundry basket to take home. With the chicks, I had to plant corn and beans, and the rest is history.
So begins my little section of BSD, where I will detail my garden, my chickens, my husbands mixed reactions to both, my inspirations (books and movies), my friends (who all have much more amazing gardens than mine) and many other related topics. I hope that somewhere among all my self-reflective babble you find some reason to sit down outside, look around, imagine a garden of your own, and shuck your own corn for dinner.
From The Backyard: A Suburban Woman’s Pursuit of the Farm Life. Moving In
The most daunting step for most in starting a garden is that first shovelful of dirt. Magazines and gardening books will tell you that you must plan everything first, from the pathways to the color schemes to the layering of different types of compost. They recommend getting a Ph test done on your soil, and, if you plan to raise any kind of livestock, checking the city codes to make sure it is legal in your neighborhood.
My personal brand of foolishness involves throwing caution to the wind.
So, before doing any reading, any research, any planning, I had sunk that shovel deep into the ground and altered the beautiful landscape that I had inherited.
When we first looked into this house nine years ago, we were enchanted with the backyard. Truly, it was the feature that sold the house. The previous owners had planted rows of roses, foxgloves, and fruit trees, all in full-blooming glory that June. There was a gigantic wall of plants on one fence, bougainvillea, lantana, and wisteria, creating a mosaic of fuchsia, lavender and pink. A Giant Bird of Paradise filled one corner, dark green leaves and white petals reaching into the blue. We put in our bid, and a month later we were moving in. Then, as the gentleman gave us the rundown on all the valves, levers, and systems that ran through the house, the first shoe dropped.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed when you are assuming ownership of a property for the first time. But the diagram of the sprinkler system that was handed to me, a 10-pager, all meticulously drawn out by hand with arrows and footnotes and marginal references, took several weeks of study. To be honest, I still couldn’t explain it to you. There were levers that had to be turned to water this corner, then shut-offs and screw-ins for the next corner. It was a homespun, Rube Goldberg contraption designed by a self-taught, crackpot engineer, and a bloodsucker of time and energy. And, unfortunately, the whole backyard of water-intensive plants depended on it.
Everything died. The roses withered to blackened, thorn-encrusted brambles. The wall of colorful tropical vegetation first housed a brazen pack of rats, then overgrew and eventually tore down the fence. The fruit trees were eaten root first by gophers. Despite that 10-page handwritten guide to the care of Eden, we failed miserably.
So began the slow transformation. Trees and roses were removed. The wall of vegetation was hacked down, the rats shooed away, and a new fence built. I struggled with my environmentally friendly push mower for many months before throwing in the towel on the lawn. With my youngest in a backpack carrier, I uprooted the crabgrass lawn and shoveled in new soil. Volunteer trees pushed up and were allowed to grow. The flowers that love this climate stayed on and continue to bloom. And I started imagining my suburban farm.
When I say my farm, I truly mean that this backyard is now imbued with the flaws and random accidental successes that characterize my agricultural skills. That is to say, that I really don’t have any skill. But let this be a message of hope, because, as you will see, it doesn’t take a whole lot of skill to grow plants. The gift of nature is that it just keeps growing. So, if there is any part of you that responds to the smell of fresh basil, the clucking chatter of a hen on her nest, or the first leaf buds on a weathered branch, then throw that Martha Stuart Living aside and dig in.