I get my back into my living

Front yards are overrated. Sure, it’s good to have some grassy space to kick a ball or toss a disc with the kid, but otherwise lawn is a waste of square feet and resources, especially water. Rip out the grass, run a nice fence around it, and build some raised beds, though, and you’ve got yourself a one-stop shop for food, physical activity, neighborly sharing, and epic curb appeal.

If you use more than zero chemicals on your lawn to make it look like they do at the country club or on the teevee, then you need to cut that shit out right now. Lawns are a primary vector for poisons to enter your life. Just say no. After some easy elective surgery, my front yard now grows food, but our back yard is plenty big enough to throw a ball and allows the sun to reach the deck off the kitchen where we often have dinner parties when it’s warm out. The most prosperous domestic lifestyle resembles the most attractive hairstyle: business in front, party in the back.

This garden takes up just about the entire former front yard of the new house, including the path to the front door from the driveway. We and any visitors have to walk through it every day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s been eighteen months since I put the garden in—it’s the very first thing I did (with help from a landscaper) after moving here—and yet this is the first post overtly about it. I didn’t blog because I spent last summer finishing the book, mostly, and when I wasn’t working I tried to be outside in the garden or woods. It provided enough vegetables to get us through this entire last year without buying anything but a few guilty pleasures like artichokes. (I know they can be grown here, but it’s a two-year job and I haven’t gotten around to it yet.) Between the freezer, which held vacuum-bagged greens of all descriptions plus a ton of pre-chopped mirepoix, pestos, salsas, and chutneys from our modest fruit haul and all of the various fermented things—kimchis, sauerkraut, shredded carrots with coriander, minced leeks with Thai chilies, pickled beets—which sat in the basement and/or fridge, we were fully provisioned with enough plant food to inspire hundreds of excellent meals.

Plus, we had a freakishly (but not for long) mild winter, which meant that I was harvesting fresh greens into the new year and planting in early March. When your garden is shut down for all of two months, this year-round growing endeavor becomes markedly easier. The lack of snow meant that if I had hooped some beds in the late fall they would have been easily accessible through the cold months and given me an even bigger head start than I already had. As it was, I only had to set the hoops up for a couple of brief cold snaps; I had 75 percent of the beds planted by mid-April and everything survived. Now we’re rolling in salads and the first cooking greens. I cooked the last bag of frozen collards a few days before sautéing the first fresh bok choy of the season: seamless.

After having a good garden at the old house, which I wrote about often and at length and which fueled much of the content on this here blog for that period, moving offered me the chance to implement all of the things I learned from those seven years. More than anything else, this new improved garden represents the absence of everything I did wrong in the old one, especially the fencing and paths. A significant flaw with the old garden was a complete lack of space to hang out in, or even a place to sit and take a break from pushing the wheelbarrow. This one has a table for four under a pergola, with two benches and a fireplace in the corner. Now it functions as useful living space for cooking and eating or just sitting around a fire. The benches are to the right of the pergola, just visible behind a phalanx of fava beans.

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The improvements are as follows. First, the beds are rough cut dimensional 2x12s, meaning they’re actually two by twelve inches. They’re lined with aluminum flashing to minimize contact between wet soil and the wood; this should give them a lifespan about twice as long as the nominal 2×12 (really 1.5″x11.5″) fir beds in the old spot, which lasted about six years. When it’s time to replace the beds (if I’m still here) the flashing can be reused. Second, the paths: they’re a pretty multicolored gravel, nicely rounded for relative barefoot comfort, over road cloth to keep weeds from poking through. Some weeds and volunteer vegetables like cilantro and arugula find purchase in there, but they’re easily pulled. I also go around once or twice a season and spray any path weeds with white vinegar to which I add some epsom salt and a few drops of dish soap. The soap allows the liquid to penetrate the leaves, and the salt and vinegar kill the plants, often down to the roots on a single application. Fuck RoundUp all the different ways.

The most important part of keeping weeds out involves the perimeter; grass is your relentless enemy, constantly craving new territory to colonize. So having perimeter beds outside the fence as an easily-weeded buffer zone makes a huge difference. Last, by top-dressing every spring with fresh compost and not tilling the soil, I reduce the weeds that grow inside the beds by about 80 percent. Most weed seeds need sunlight to germinate; smothering them in compost keeps that from ever happening. You need a compost layer at least an inch think to be effective. So this garden, which at about 50 x 75 feet with 31 beds, is not actually that much work to maintain.

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The garden is divided into three main zones. The first is the 28 raised beds that make up the bulk of it. Of these, two are now devoted to strawberries; initially it was just one but they’re too good. I also transplanted a bunch of runners into the blueberry bed. That bed, plus the perimeter beds both inside and outside of the big fence, make up the second zone: fruit. Various currants, plus gooseberries and jostaberries (a currant-gooseberry hybrid) make up the underplantings, while above them I have espaliered plum, pear, and cherry trees. Hardy kiwis live in one little corner bed, and I have three kinds of native table grapes planted along the outside of the fence near the pergola; they made it close to the top last year and should begin to cover it (and fruit) this year. There’s a thornless blackberry patch outside the other corner, and a bed each of rhubarb and asparagus. The old garden in town had those two crops outside the fence and the deer ignored them; the deer here in the woods are hungrier, with less landscaping to eat, so they go after everything. I wish I had known that before I locked in this design, since the retrofitted fencing is not beautiful.

The third zone is the herb garden, between the stone walkway and the house. The only noteworthy plantings the previous owners added were in this area: savory, chives, lavender, thyme, and sage. I left all those right where they were and augmented them with more perennials: lovage, four kinds of mint, two oreganos, tarragon, anise hyssop, marjoram, wild garlic, and nasturtium (not a perennial, but they reseed themselves so same difference). I also planted sand cherries, beach plum, peaches, goji berry, elderberry, and a fig tree in this area, plus lots of day lilies which are both edible and beautiful. The bees—not ours, our neighbor’s—love this part. Watching them gangbang the savory and anise hyssop flowers at their peak is quite something.

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Last summer brought a plague of caterpillars, which put a hard hurt on the fruit trees and blueberries, They all came back, except for a couple of blueberry bushes and one deer-ravaged apple tree. This year shouldn’t be as bad—the apples are fenced now—and I will be more vigilant with manual pest removal and organic treatments to protect those precious leaves. The Japanese beetles were bad, too, which killed those bushes; the bugs ate the second growth of leaves and the poor plants couldn’t recover. Apart from that, we had an excellent year, especially for peppers.

This spring has brought a salutary cycle of sun and rain. The greens are freaking out; we have salad for lunch and dinner every day and more greens to cook with dinner. The potatoes are all up, and I have tomato and pepper seeds started and ready to transplant once the soil warms up next week. Any time I need a break from typing or want to put in a serious hour of heavy schlepping, there’s always something that needs doing. And spending time—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot—in the garden every day gives me all the inspiration I need to figure out what we’re going to have for dinner.

Beyond the pleasure and exercise of gardening, the extraordinary freshness of our food, our year-round vegetable independence, the joy of seeing the kid eat everything we grow, and the smug liberal self-satisfaction of being holier than thou, hands down the best part of this endeavor is hearing women say “My God, it’s so big!” when they see it for the first time.

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4 Comments

  1. May 19
    Reply

    Good to see you back! I have been wanting to hear about this epic garden. It’s a work of art. Your organizational skills astound. Having that clean slate to work with makes me jealous, though it must have been a ton of work. I’m still living with all my mistakes. However, this year is looking great–the greens, especially the spinach, are just incredible.

    • Peter
      May 19
      Reply

      This year has been incredible for greens so far. And I swear, it’s not really that much work until the end of summer when it’s preservation time.

  2. Elizabeth
    May 19
    Reply

    I could read about your garden everyday. It’s stunning!!! For someone who has no land and a patio with no light, I take my daughter to local farms (an hour away) to pick our fruit and vegetables. I can get a nice bit of satisfaction and peace from that too.

    • Peter
      May 19
      Reply

      I love visiting farms. And teaching kids that food comes from the ground is important.

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