(I had hoped to get this installment out to you prior to April's end, but Life had other plans. So, a story to start your Beltane for those who celebrate- let's welcome the joy of the fertile season with all its promise of abundant harvests to follow.):
We don’t have to travel very far for this month’s story. In fact, we go no further than my own backyard. Come on out for the latest.
Since this land informed us it wishes to be productive and to work in partnership with its inhabitants, I’ve rolled up my sleeves, sifted through my reference books, checked out design guides from the library and met with permaculture design consultant, Leslie Stevens of Sidewalk Farms in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Leslie sat with me recently, and within a couple hours, mind bursting with ideas, crammed notepad at the ready, I was off to the compost pile, shovel in hand.
I laid out one trial bed with mulch retrieved from piles out in the back nine, leftover from years gone by, but perfect for our sheet layering purposes. Coffee grounds reclaimed from Starbuck’s, grass clippings were added. Super loam and extra compost will round it out once we get closer to planting day. Regular doses of compost tea will keep the seasonal feeding going. Techniques to achieve the best recipe of layer ingredients vary, and I’m sure we will experiment, but for now this will do.
Leslie reeled me in from dotting the entire lot with beds, a macro appetite on a micro time budget. In my wild dreams there would be flowers for cutting: dahlias, wildflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace, coneflower, angelica; and snapdragon, calendula, violet, borage, bee balm, nasturtium for nibbling. Harvesting gardens overflowing with lavender, echinacea, mugwort, yarrow, mullein, plantain, motherwort-a brimming kitchen patch right out the back door bursting with basil, cilantro, lemon thyme, rosemary, chive, potted mints, creeping chamomile for the walkway….squash to disguise the hideous metal pen, and in the main veg garden old favorites like cukes, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, experiments with lettuces, kale, chard, carrot, potato, scallion, and of course, a nod to the nightshades and dark beauties with celebrities such as Datura, Belladonna, henbane, foxglove, and mandrake…..
We will, however, begin m o d e s t l y.
Leslie suggested three beds, plus filling in the wooden trough (a subject for debate as Steve wants to wrench the unsightly thing off the patio) for the kitchen herbs and a selection of cutting greens, maybe a few more herbs by the deck….and potting up lavender and rosemary for easy over wintering. A restrained start, we'll see how my willpower holds out.
It’s worth noting that all but two of the tomato plantings (these being gifted to us from dear friend Selena’s seeds) will come from my own family stock, how cool is that??
Auntie Irene sent me smears of dried specimens labeled, “R.L.’s Red”, “Stripe” and “2016”. Dad tells me some of these seeds were carried on my great grandfather James Penley’s person as he walked from Western Virginia to the eventual Jackson/Penley homeplace in Greenville, Tennessee- about a 600 mile trek, without roads, bridges, through the forests, hills and dales. I'm told members of this seed pool have been in the family for 150 years!
Ohh, I pray I can raise them well and that they will grace our table come those sultry July and August evenings. Send my seedlings a good thought, will you?
I’d like to grow as much as possible to keep us fed not only in the summer but year-round. We will take our baby steps this year, with successive planting and making tomato sauce, hopefully cutting back or eliminating the need to purchase it in the winter season.
Doing my best to follow in my ancestors’ lighter carbon footprint, I will teach Niko what I learn about this new growing methodology too. I cannot bear to think of a day when a Jackson descendant doesn’t put seedling to ground. And you can bet someday I’ll be the Granny in the garden patch with his wee ones, pressing sun warmed cherry tom’s into chubby upturned paws.
We are, by and large, divorced from our food sources, from the land we live on but, can you imagine the impact a small garden in every backyard, patio or porch could make? Leslie shared a story about a woman who rode her bike up the driveway and parked, dug something out of her pack and extended her hand revealing a potato. She said, “I want you to show me how to plant this.” Wonderful she wanted to learn, but sad she didn’t have a clue as how to. Another woman visited Leslie’s garden and pointed to a flourishing stalk and asked what was the plant. When she replied, “That’s potato”, a confused look spread over the woman’s face, like “Wait, I don’t see any potato, I see a green blooming thing here.” That potatoes are tubers and have both above and below ground growth was a shock.
Don’t feel badly if you are among those lacking tuber savvy, most of us are. Few of us grew up with backyard gardens. Fewer still grow one today. You have only to look around your neighborhood to prove the point.
I can think of no down side to tending a small backyard plot: for a minimal effort you have fresh food you can vouch for that is as local as one could wish, costing a fraction of what it would to go out and buy (after the first year of investing in getting the space up and running), the thrill of watching green things you've nurtured grow- think of all the learning and life lessons along the way: the rewards of honest efforts, understanding the life cycle, the connection to seasonal living and change, how to care for living things, the value of self-sufficiency, the pleasure of eating delicious, non-treated produce, the joy of sharing bounty with friends and neighbors or creating an extra revenue stream with the overage………
My relatives relied on what they grew to feed them out of necessity. They survived on what they planted, raised, foraged, or hunted. Today we have the luxury of deciding from many options how we will nourish ourselves. Even so, a grass roots return to the basics is underway all over the planet. Back to simpler lifestyles, to controlling where we get our food from so we know what goes into it. From faster, cheaper, less healthful and easy to conscious, mindful, invested, sustainable, restorative. We pull forward from the past what works while planning ahead with visions of safer, healthier, wiser collaboratives with the land and all its residents be they human, animal, mineral, or green allies. We are at a precious turning point- for the earth’s well-being and our own. What will our children, and theirs, inherit from our mis-steps? What can we do to repair the many devastating repercussions of our choices?
Questions like these can overwhelm, but don’t have to. Any one of us may not be the savior of this beleaguered world. Any one of us may not have all the answers. But each of us can grab a trowel, a few seeds and plant for a new beginning, one season, one yard, one person at a time.