Good intentions

Was my last post really written in February?  Nah, can’t be correct.  I totally intended to write about the (near) completion of our front yard fence with its beautiful benches.

Comfy bench right inside the new fence, we have TWO!

Comfy bench right inside the new fence, we have TWO!

I meant to write about my efforts with vertical garden expansion, and all the planting we have done in our edible front landscape…

Edible plants give so much more than food - just look at this nectarine blossom!

Edible plants give so much more than food – just look at this nectarine blossom!

There was the planned post about the garden space we have dedicated to the kiddo and her friends, complete with tree platform and crazy playthings, did I not write that one?

This old bench came from the local swap meet - it was clearly MEANT for our yard!

This old bench came from the local swap meet – it was clearly MEANT for our yard!

I had this whole mental post on the shrinky dink hoses we bought.  The ones that totally changed my life – making it possible to water the entire front and side yards in about 10 minutes, while simultaneously relieving me of many pairs of shoes I clearly no longer needed, soaking my work clothing before I get into the car, and generally wasting gallons of water due to their design flaws.  Nah, I don’t even have a picture of their shriveled lime green glory.  Must have missed making that post too.

And now it is a week before my daughter graduates from 4th grade.  There are parties to celebrate going on to middle school, our last book fair volunteer shift.  There are gifts to buy for a gazillion school employees that made it possible for my kiddo to make it through elementary education thus far. There is a conference for about 200 librarians being hosted by my institution in just over a week. Oh and this little book I am writing, better known as my dissertation.

I am dragging.  Really.  The artichokes I looked forward to, growing way up at the top of the back garden?  Lovely purple flowers now.  Forgot to harvest them, along with BIG heads of celery that have gone to seed.  The chickens have eaten bushels of purple carrots that we just never had the time to peel or eat ourselves.

I am currently living on a diet of sugar free Slurpees, grapefruit juice, and Hot Tamales. I figure I am getting all the essentials – high sugar fruit juice, chemicals, and candy.  How could I go wrong? I used to cook and bake – I think.  I have these things I vaguely remember are called pans.  They sit on this big box that I have heard is called a stove.  I wonder if I could use them to plant more stuff…

And oh yes, we have four more chickens coming.  That big structure taking shape in the back yard still needs wire, and a roof, and…

These babies need housing, gotta get the new coop finished!

These babies need housing, gotta get the new coop finished!

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You say you want a revolution…

In a recent issue of Urban Farm magazine, a community gardener described the fruits of her labor in terms something like this: It’s not just a garden, it’s a revolution.That statement struck me as a profound truth. What folks like Don Axe of Valley View Farm, folks like me at the Laughing Place, folks turning lawns into vegetable gardens across the country are doing is participating in a radical and pervasive change in society – the very definition of a revolution. (Thanks Dictionary.com for clarifying!) We are changing, in small ways and large, the food chain.  We are changing how children understand and value what appears on the supper table. We are changing our neighborhoods by providing shared resources, and a means of connecting with the people around us.

I am unashamedly adopting the words of that community gardener as the motto for the Laughing Place. In fact, the boat that serves as our newest raised bed is named Revolution.

Giving our boat a name...

Giving our boat a name…

Yes, I am a Beatles fan – so all on its own the name makes some sense.  But a sign placed just above the name is soon to follow, one that will connect the dots for our neighbors: “It’s not just a garden, it’s a…”

For Americans, the return to a more agricultural focus has become trendy.  I am one of three backyard chicken keepers in a three block radius in our neighborhood. Many of my extended family members and friends garden, and a couple of them could also be called urban farmers. We have time and resources in plenty. But what if we could change the larger world with our little gardens?

I imagine that not one person in Somalia is going to thank me for a box of my surplus produce – whatever good intentions might have been packed in with the tomatoes and zucchini, the fruit and veggies would arrive unusable. But what if we could contribute something that won’t rot in the shipping? What if we sent ideas? That’s just what Marcin Jakubowski is doing. Through a unique initiative, Marcin is designing an open-source blueprint for self-sufficiency. Check out his TED talk here

Pretty inspiring, no? And what if a farmer in Afghanistan applied for a Kiva loan to build one of Marcin’s tractors? Would you contribute $25? I’m pretty sure we CAN change the world – one farm at a time.

Crazy Containers

The ground is a great place to plant things.   But as any good gardener will tell you, a nice flat patch of dirt need not be the only space you consider when starting, or expanding, a garden.  In fact, the Laughing Place began when I could not part with an old wheelbarrow that had finally ceased to be useful for its original purpose.

Old wheelbarrows never die...

Old wheelbarrows never die…

That wheelbarrow herb garden is now surrounded by greens in grow bags, peas climbing a branch trellis in an old basket, and a popcorn popper filled with Rue.

The Whirly-Pop now has a new purpose

The Whirly-Pop now has a new purpose

One benefit of container gardening is that pests, like the voles that have stolen two of my artichoke plants, find it harder to burrow under and eat the roots of things planted in say, a toy truck.

Ready to place in the garden

The voles may be plotting to car jack these plants!

Unusual containers are also just fun. It would have been easy to turn the bit of dirt beside our driveway into another regular garden bed.  But when presented with a 12 foot fishing boat, what is a girl to do? Plant beans, naturally!

Front seat for the kids to play fishing games, garden in back!

Front seat for the kids to play fishing games, garden in back!

Then again, sometimes the container isn’t all that unusual, but the crop growing in it is altogether out of the ordinary…

This type of gardening isn't for everyone.

This type of gardening isn’t for everyone.

Permascape

In her recent post, Phyllis alluded to the struggle that every gardener must face – how do we best use the space we have been given? Is it enough to grow things to nourish the body, or do we need to nourish the soul as well? In our case, the decision was made to use a bit of our land to feed the need for peaceful vistas. But what if there was a way to do traditional landscape and still grow good things to eat?

Enter the world of Permascape or permaculture – the concept of creating sustainable yards that are full of beautiful, edible plantings. Books such as Gaia’s Garden and The Edible Front Yard offer tons of inspiration for turning lawn space into food space without losing the peace and comfort of a lovely landscape.

In truth, even our St. Francis garden has elements of permascape. The bush that supplies a background (and often threatens to swallow him entirely!) for the statue of St. Francis is a rosemary. The furthest corner of that garden contains a large lavender plant. And hidden under the fountain and maiden grasses are lemon thyme and Texas tarragon.

Texas Tarragon as landscape plant

As we plant, we are conscious of the role each new addition plays. Fruit trees have taken the place of hedge plantings. Grapes  and berries now adorn the trellises in our courtyard, side yard kitchen garden, and in front of the house. As we mature as gardeners, we seek out plants that serve a dual purpose as well as scoping out new spaces in which we can grow things. The principles of permaculture offer excellent ways in which to find that perfect compromise – a lovely and sustaining yard!

Triple crown blackberries are beginning to grow up a trellis near our front door.

Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of Thompson seedless and Concord grapes. One day the vine will cover the front wall of our house.

What’s in a garden?

Gardening. We love it. Every little scrap of land we have available is dedicated to some sort of plant life or, considering the chicken coop, animal life. We take delight in discovering the daily changes in the garden and thoroughly enjoy the bounty of the gifts the land and animals provide us.

One evening while enjoying our backyard, Annie grumbled about not having any more space to grow more crops. I suggested that we did actually have some space, if we wanted to repurpose our St. Francis garden.  It is so named because of my discovery of a small St. Francis statue abandoned among the pile of weeds and debris left by the previous home owners. It was painted a garish brown, orange, and yellow and we completely understood the desire to hide it. However, with a little gray paint it became quite a respectable statue, and became the focal point of our garden.

The St. Francis garden is low maintenance, only needing part of a day of trimming and weeding once a year to bring it back to its glory. However, it does not provide us with any food.  Annie reluctantly agreed to convert it to vegetable beds and we made plans – deciding what we would plant and how to repurpose some of the existing plants to other areas of the yard.

St. Francis garden in its glory.

Later we came across a photo of the garden displayed in its entire magnificent, wild flowery splendor. We hesitated, could we really destroy this patch of yard that brings us such joy and contentment? If we kept it in its present state, we would never enjoy the gifts of the garden with varieties of vegetables we anticipated growing. However, it currently presents us with the gift of beauty – providing us with pleasure and respite. And in the end, isn’t that just as worthy?

When Life Gets in the Way

So, it has been 5 months since my last blog entry.  I have posted on projects and food, but seem to have gotten side tracked on posting about the garden itself.

I had surgery in late April, and before that just did not have the energy to keep up with everyday tasks, making the garden suddenly a chore – when before it had been a joy.

Six weeks post surgery and I AM BACK!  So much energy and raring to go in my favorite spot on the planet. There are new plants emerging, the strawberries are ripening, and for the first time I am harvesting big, wonderful onions.  Yum!

Though it is hard to hack through 5 foot weeds, and demoralizing to think about what I didn’t get done – no beets, no corn this year, say good-bye to dreams of spinach and lettuce – the work it takes to move back to a garden-centric life reminds me that for some a vegetable garden just isn’t possible. Health crises, time constraints, lack of space (though container grown tomatoes are an option for nearly anyone), etc. can become barriers to home-grown produce.

But…that does not mean that you can’t get really good, fresh produce! Farmers markets can be found in many communities, there are U-pick farms available from which to harvest your own food, and my favorite option – the CSA.

CSA, or community supported agriculture, programs allow non-farmers to subscribe for shares in a farm’s produce. The buyer pays a set price, and in return receives produce on a regular schedule. The farm benefits from a regular influx of cash, the consumer reaps the bounty produced at the farm with no work outside filling in an online form.

What can you expect from a CSA program? Good, fresh, seasonal fruits and veggies in a big bin, harvested and ready for pickup on a schedule of once every one or two weeks.

What can you find in a CSA box? A lovely surprise each time.

Receiving the produce from a CSA can occur in several ways – most supply through local farmers markets, some allow delivery to your door, and I am lucky enough to participate in a program that allows me to pick up my bi-weekly bin full of goodies where I work.

Since the produce isn’t trucked or flown in from distant regions (ever think about how it is possible to be eating oranges in the dead of winter in Minnesota? Those babies didn’t grow next door!) the fruits and veggies included in each CSA bin differ according to what is locally grown during the current season. Subscribers get a variety of foods, and have the fun of trying things that may never have made an appearance in their kitchens before.

More fun than you ever thought a Rubbermaid container could hold.

So, even if you find that a garden isn’t a practical addition at the moment, go out and find some fresh, local produce! Go on, it tastes so good…

Rain Barrel

I didn’t plant a winter vegetable garden.  It wasn’t a decision to take a break or to let the garden lie fallow for beneficial reasons. I didn’t plant a cover crop.  I just got side-tracked and suddenly there were weeds instead of <insert desirable vegetable here> and I found myself needing to do a bunch of work to reclaim my space. Suck.

In the meantime, naturally, I am reading about gardening. It helps me to feel productive even when I’m not doing much. I  am currently studying Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. An interesting book on many levels – talks about gardening in the face of constrained circumstances such as economic collapse, problematic health, or climate change.

The author asserts that there are basically five crops necessary to survive and thrive in the face of hardship: Potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and eggs. She also talks about what is necessary to raise those crops. Which got me thinking…

I live in Southern California.  I have most of what is needed to raise four of the five crops mentioned.  I don’t have enough space for the ducks she suggest for egg production – but I haven’t given up hope of one day raising chickens. I have adequate space for a garden, lots of sunshine, a composter. The one ingredient that a SoCal girl might not have in ample supply is water. Let’s face it, we experience drought conditions in most years. We are currently under water restrictions imposed by the city. What if the hard times predicted by Ms. Deppe should occur? Where would we get enough water to continue to garden, even for a short time?

Um, it falls from the sky, actually.  Even here in SoCal we get a little thing called rain. We often lament that when it rains, as the old slogan says, it pours. Water comes down in quantities that the dry ground is unable to absorb and we experience problematic run-off. The water is provided, we just don’t have good ways of turning puddles into irrigation on the homefront.

So how would I capture rain if necessary?  Set a gazillion of those 5 gallon orange Home Depot buckets under the eaves? Pull out the Rubbermaid trash bins? What do people in places where they expect rain (we don’t here really, we just crash on the freeways when it sprinkles and avoid the ocean for a couple of days after a storm due to the pollution that gets churned up by the waves) actually do with it? Rain barrels.  Big containers made for capturing precipitation!

So, naturally, I decided our home needed a rain barrel IMMEDIATELY. I found one online  that seemed perfect – smallish, cute, the color of the terra cotta pots I use in my container garden. Then I read the reviews.  “Spigot is too low.” “Fragile outer wall.” “Hose connector needed to be replaced after first use.” Reviews that said to me, “Find another barrel Annie!”

After reading what felt like an encyclopedia’s worth of reviews, I finally settled on a barrel that was slightly less stylish, a bit larger, but one with all the right parts in the right places, and which folks seemed to really like. Sold.  I ordered it and hoped it would come before the rains. Like we have any idea when that might be.

About a week later, while rain was crashing down into my little courtyard from the gutterless eaves, the doorbell rang.  The shoes and socks of my favorite man in brown shorts appeared from behind a VERY large, plastic sheeted box. He placed the box on the edge of the front steps. It fell with a crash, nearly missing him as he turned to leave. He rescued it, dropped it inside the front door, and ran.

The rain barrel! Wait? That’s the medium-ish rain barrel I ordered? The 45 gallon rain barrel? How big a box does something of that size really need? Oh…yeah…  The 45 gallon barrel was Ms. Unpopular. This was MAMA rain barrel. The one that holds 75 gallons. You know what? A 75 gallon rain barrel takes up every inch of a ginormous box. Every. Single. Inch.

Okay, so the box is as big as the 8 year old. No problem.

Um, okay.  It won’t fit where I planned to put it, where the heck will it fit? As my roommate trailed me, laughing all the way, she mentioned – SEVERAL times – that there was no chance EVER that this particular model of barrel would EVER get filled.  We just don’t get that kind of rain. Certain members of my extended family had expressed the same sentiment upon hearing my plan – even when I neglected to mention the size of the barrel.  “What are you thinking? That thing will just eat space and hold air. Another hare-brained idea!” Or words to that effect.

It was, after all, raining when the barrel appeared on my doorstep.  Placing it instantaneously would help to ensure that the nay-sayers in my world would be proven wrong.  Come on Annie, think!

Then I looked out at the courtyard.  The courtyard surrounded on three sides by gutterless eaves that slope toward the ground. The one with the miniature Bridal Veil Falls currently cascading onto the concrete.  Perfect!

Quck! Get that thing under the eaves!

A few minutes later the barrel was situated for maximum water capture. Half an hour later it  had a couple of inches of water in the bottom.  A couple of days later (with one sunny day between the first and that last) and the water level was dangerously close to the overflow valve, while I was beginning to wonder what to put under the valve to capture the water that would not fit in the “WAY too big” barrel.

Rubber ducky your're the one...you make the rain barrel so fun! And show the water level too...

We lost some of that initial downpour too.  The barrel came with the spigot open, something I did not notice until the water level was high enough for it to be spouting a steady stream.

Now I’m thinking we need another barrel for the back yard.  We have a downspout there just waiting for a diverter. Of course, it hasn’t rained since the barrel filled.

Even so, these days I am watering from the spigot on Bertha Barrel.  And  hoping for rain.  Lots of rain.