Suburbia. Tiny houses (at least from way up high, of course, all in neat, tidy rows). Green shrubs. Tulips. Grasses tall and short. Eons ago, I purchased my first house, a two-story Cape Cod, lined with some of each and more: Blackeyed susan. Russian sage. Pine trees.
I loved this house. Your first home holds a special place in your heart.
Then, it all changed. After a short bit, those little bushes became really big bushes. I’m convinced that if the human race was wiped from the earth it wouldn’t take long for nature to forget all about us. Stuff grows. Fast.
No matter how small landscaping of choice looks, trim each year. Gardening takes a special talent. Think three dimensional. Or, across long horizons. One day, I realized my bushes had grown exponentially. I had become Jack with his magic beans, except my beans grew to become monstrous, terrifying bushes. Each fall, it took hours to trim, manicure the lawn, and oh, elephant grass is the worst. It grows nine feet tall, turns to brown, and waves in the wind all winter. Cut it down to six inches and start all over again.
I put in all of this work to claim a certain curb appeal. For what? So, my neighbors can smile and nod at my perceived greatness of the house? I doubt folks gave it a second thought. Resale value? I really wasn’t sure.
So, I started to think. This is where you should stop your best friend, significant other, or any passerby. Given time to think, folks get ideas. Never good. I figured if I’m going to put so much into the yard I might as well get a return out of it. If I’m going to trim, rake up, burn, and haul off, I decided these bushes owed me. I wanted a dividend. If Wall-Street traders pursued these relentlessly in the market, I wanted to have a portfolio in the backyard. It was my eureka moment. The birth of edible landscaping.
It’s a noble calling. We have a food supply problem in the world. There are a great books on this. Too many to mention. When I was a kid, my dad nurtured this massive garden. Rows of corn, beans, radishes, and tomato plants. It was glorious. A great place to get lost in and to hide from your friends. At night, it was a bit spooky. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn still sends a shiver down the spine. I have vowed to never run out of gas in Nebraska.
During summers since past, for dinner, my sister and I would go out and grab a few ears of corn. Shuck it and a few minutes later corn goodness. It was far more convenient than the produce isle at the grocery store.
And our food supply does have its constraints and challenge. If you think about it a bit, all that food in the local grocery store has to come from somewhere. The US produces corn in mass (some could argue too much). Subsidies can have unintended consequences. And then there are these slaughter houses where cows are cramped so close together they never truly get to move. Then, companies squeeze every bit of cost out of the equation. There is nothing wrong with this. These entities are out to make a profit and provide value. But shipping cattle, corn, beans, lettuce, potatoes, takes work. It also creates an immense out of pollution. Consider the hundreds of thousands of miles rigs travel to get to the Whole Foods, Schnucks, Kroeger, Wal-Mart, that’s a ton of gas.
By ripping out my landscaping and planting a garden, I figured nothing has to be shipped across country. I could walk outside, cut lettuce, pick a few berries, and come back into the house. Rinse. Eat. And most importantly, I know where my food came from. I know if my yard and plants have been bombarded with chemicals too.
This is an important point. After a late night study session in college, I stomped down the steps to the fraternity house kitchen. Picture five guys huddled around the counter. Hayride T-Shirts. Doc Martin sandals. All eating chips. These were the new olestra kind, right when they first came out. Let’s say, my brothers didn’t have the greatest next day. Always eat in moderation. Still, I struggle with what goes in our food supply. A spiderweb network of seed companies, farmer, herbicide creator, etc., all working to get product to table. Sometimes, we cut corners. I read a book on olive oil awhile back. Yes, most olive oils in stores today is nothing but lamp oil. We consume this. Sigh. And then look at the differences between the US and Europe on chemicals in make-up (Europe bans most). Hard to say which continent is right but this does give me pause.
For step one of my garden project, I ripped out a few grass bundles on the side of the house and planted two raspberry bushes. Now, these plants are amazing. In two years, one chute became fifty. When late spring comes, I can pick a quart of berries each night. It’s hard work. There is a reason they cost five bucks for a half quart at the market.
Then, a row of green shrubs met their demise. Clearing bushes ain’t easy. I replaced them with a grape vine. It took three years to get my first true grape bunch. The vine is hardy. Yes, Japanese Beatles congregate/mate/chew all over it. But I’m thinking long term. Maybe, one day my vine will rival my raspberries. I doubt it. I’m guessing the razzy chutes will take over the entire neighborhood. They can get a little crazy at times. And yes, these vines are surrounded by wild flowers. Bees help pollinate the garden. That’s my theory.
Heirloom Tomatoes. These can be challenging but the payoff is worth it. Arkansas Traveler. Green Zebra. Ed Robeson. Sun Gold (tiny tomatoes). This year, we planted twelve plants, bunching them all together. I felt that was a mistake. To compound the proximity problem, a raccoon got a hankering for them. These critters are hard to stop. It’s the little hands! Gardening can be an adventure, but there is a little satisfaction in watching the vine wrap around the bamboo pole.
I did brick landscaping around my lettuce patch. It was a good year for lettuce. Each plant grew up from seed. Another benefit of being a gardener, seeing your little start-ups grow. Think being a parent, but at the end you get to eat your kids. Sounds like a script for a future reality TV show. Ancient Assyrians where known for this too.
Now, have all of these projects worked out? No. This will be the first year we’ve managed to eat peppers from the patch (our Labrador has a hankering for jalapeños). Blueberry plants always seem to whither and die (yet, I’m trying again). I don’t care what the local farmers say about the soil not being ideal. Charging onward.
And we have ideas for a few future projects: green bean trellis, corn stalks to replace the elephant grass, and more wild flowers (they’ve been great). I’d also love to have a bee hive but I think my neighbors would hate me for it.
Ultimately, I’d like to have a self sustaining yard. Goats. Pigs. Heirloom wheat. I’m dreaming big. Only kidding, I’m a believer in farmer’s markets. Diversification is a good thing. Plus growing carrots and potatoes aren’t easy. However, if you get ambitious check this out. I thinks it’s cool.
And this is work. My wife would say I’m really good at planting and building stuff but not so good at pruning, ongoing maintenance, watering, etc., Beware, hard work ahead. But hey, it is worth it. If everyone used their little slice of suburbia to grow a few berries, we might have a few less trucks criss-crossing across the country, more kids understanding where our food comes from, and an all out improved awareness/appreciation for Mother Nature.
The White House has an impressive garden too. And there is nothing wrong with that.
For the header, the sunflower is a picture from our yard, an heirloom variety. Seedsavers is a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping plants around. Check them out. A number of our wild flowers come from them.
For our heirloom tomatoes, they are also grown from seed. My wife handles this and does a great job with it-don’t give me any credit. I only eat them. Although they can be more challenging than the hybrid variety, they are worth trying for variety. Many of these come from Baker Creek.
Special thanks to my wife, for everything. And my labrador retriever too. She picks the weeds.