My use of the word “farm” is pretty grandiose, but that was the goal that Ira and I had in mind when we first got this project started. As last winter wore on, and we indulged in endless hours of political discussion as we usually wind up doing, we each independently came up with the idea to transform the backyard into a vegetable garden, with some fruit too.
For Ira, this was us taking a political stand. His intention is to get us as far “off the grid” as we can be in the middle of a huge city. He didn’t want to have to depend upon delivery of tomatoes from Mexico in plastic crates so that he could have a salad with his dinner, or tomato sauce with his meals.
For me, the reasons were almost entirely spiritual. Without ever having seen it happen, I woke up one day to realize that I was so completely disconnected from the land. I’d been living the stereotypical city dweller life, with a daily schedule crammed to the brim with endless work and a few hours of entertainment when I could squeeze it in. My life took place in the office, on the pavement, or in the subway or the car. I’d stopped looking at the sky, stopped noticing the landscape, and didn’t even have any awareness of the weather. Now I wanted to feel the earth beneath my feet and stick my hands in the soil, and feel clean water running through my fingers. At the same time, I began reading and listening to Vandana Shiva. I decided that I wanted our household and office to consume as little as humanly possible, and to produce as much vegetation as possible on the small plots of dirt that we do have.
Early last spring, we had the trees trimmed to bring sunlight back into our yard. I made exactly one trip to the local nursery, came back with one flat of assorted vegetables and put them into the ground . . .
. . . making a long list of mistakes as I went along.
Now it’s early August and the harvest has begun. Here’s what I learned in the first year:
Growing our own tomatoes was a breeze. We love cherry tomatoes the best, and that’s all that we planted. I basically just stuck each little plant into the soil, put a cage over it, watered it every morning and then stood back and let Mother Earth do the rest.
I buy tomatoes almost every day of the year. The tomatoes are packed in plastic boxes that I will throw out, after which time they will wind up in a landfill where they’ll sit in perpetuity. The tomatoes are trucked in from God-only-knows where. They are not grown locally. But for the last three weeks, I’ve been able to go out to the garden while I’m preparing dinner and help myself to fresh tomatoes right off the vine. They smell heavenly and taste just as good; much better than anything I’ve bought in the store. After having this experience, it’s going to be nearly impossible for me to return to buying those little plastic boxes of tomatoes.
Mistakes made: I didn’t learn how to prune the tomato plants and they’ve all grown into a wild mess. Of my 12 plants, 8 are in cages that are just too short, and of those short cages, a few have begun to come out of the ground so that the plants are tipping over. The tomatoes have grown tangled all over one another, but they are all thriving and giving lots of fruit. To boot, I planted the tomatoes too close to a fig bush, and now branches of tomato plants are entwined with branches of the fig bush. I’ve got to duck under this tangle in order to move around the yard.
Growing cucumbers couldn’t be easier. But I didn’t understand that they grow on a vine, so they need a frame to climb on. I put in three kirby cucumber plants that are producing a lot more than I ever expected, but they are sprawling all over our small yard. They grew over our strawberries [well, it was a stroke of absolute genius on my behalf to plant strawberries next to cucumbers] so the strawberries are a wash out.
I love red leaf lettuce and I use it in all of my salads. So I bought three red leaf lettuce plants. Little did I know that there are variations of red leaf lettuce, and the one that I bought is very bitter. No one wants to eat it but my mother-in-law. The lettuce did really well for awhile, but I had no idea how or when to harvest it. I guess I was waiting for it to become a head, like the ones I buy in the grocery store. A neighbor informed me that I should just take the leaves as I need them, and keep the plants in the ground. Chalk this one up to a learning experience too.
Awful results with broccoli. We’ve got stalks and lots of leaves but virtually no florets. Three plants and no harvest.
Eggplant is growing hardily. We’ve had small purple flowers and now we have the beginnings of fruit. Unfortunately, a little guest has taken up residence under my cellar door, and she believes that the dangling fruit is a toy for her to pass the day batting around.
We eat a lot of red peppers, but I only put in one plant, and so far I only have one pepper. And though the plant was marked as a red pepper, this pepper is green and shows no sign of turning red. Next year, we put in many more pepper plants.
The figs were here from the time that we moved in 25 years ago, and they have given us a huge amount of fruit every year.
The grape orchard came with the house too, but we didn’t maintain it, and it stopped giving fruit. Early last spring, Ira repaired the frame and trained the vines back on to it, but we’ll have no fruit this year.
Lessons learned: It would be a good idea to pull up all the ivy that’s been the ground cover back here. It’s crawling over valuable land that could produce crops. There’s also got to be thought given when it comes to planting one crop next to another. Climbers need frames. Tomatoes need sturdier cages. And if every crop had a cage, my guests in the back yard would have to find other play things.
Farm Kitten sitting amongst her many toys.