Why Garden?!

Winter garden - February - full of greens and veggies at Hillside Gardens

Winter garden – February – full of greens and veggies at Hillside Gardens

By Diann Dirks

Because I am a Permaculture Designer sometimes people wonder why I don’t live on a farm, grow huge crops and get into mass growing. I do consult with farms both urban and rural just as I help people living in residential areas and have helped get started a number of community gardens. If I had the means I would probably live on more acreage but farming is a full time occupation whereas my vision is to get people to grow their own food. I work very hard to teach people how to feed themselves and to learn about how to get the most out of any sized growing space with a minimum of work for a maximum of yield. That is the vision of Permaculture Design.

But it isn’t the only reason I garden instead of farm.

There are in fact many reasons.

The obvious one is that I love walking out my door with a basket and coming in with a pile of a great variety of fresh foods which would cost a ton in the market – being organic and minutes fresh. But also just the satisfaction of having done it myself with the help of nature.

Harvest of fruits and vegetables from summer beds Hillside Gardens 2012

Harvest of fruits and vegetables from summer beds Hillside Gardens 2012

Economically it really makes sense to at least replace a percentage of your edible budget with home grown foods. In case you haven’t been paying attention, the cost of food has gone up from between 45 and 75% (depending on where you live) in the past 3 years. You used to be able to fill the back of your car for about $100. Now you fill the backseat and maybe you cut back on the cut of meat to save a bit of money. If you could replace 35% of your grocery bill with home grown veggies, you could buy that sirloin steak instead of hamburger now and then, and even be able to stock up a bit for food insurance. It isn’t that hard to do.

For me there is the satisfaction of knowing I can provide for my husband and I, the best possible quality of grown food. It’s a way of insuring health for both of us. Plus I have always loved gardening, working in the soil, getting my hands dirty (and just about every other part of me since sometimes I come in looking like I rolled in it) because I feel a great connection to the earth and living things. Just the activity of it is an aesthetic and creative experience for me which gives me great spiritual joy. If I had to do it day in and day out just to make a living, I think it would spoil that for me somehow. I do grow enough to sell often and share as well. Certainly we eat wonderful home grown fruits and vegetables all year round and benefit from that tremendously. I also benefit from the physical exercise of it keeping this 67 year old body relatively fit comparing myself to my non-gardening friends of the same age. I run rings around most of them.

There is also a ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing’ effect of having that physical real-time connection to the energy of the earth by actually having my hands (and my feet) in the dirt without being insulated from the free electrons in there. This is something that is becoming more and more understood recently because the concept of taking things that are anti-oxidant is really about supplying an abundance of free electrons to fill up the bandit atoms in free-radicals which go around the cells and grab electrons from working parts to feed holes in their energy makeup.

Another aspect of this is an area of research which is finding that putting one’s hands in living micro-organism rich earth somehow triggers things in our immune system to make it stronger. People actually get healthier by working in dirt. The exact reason for this hasn’t been found – or at least I haven’t found the research. But I suspect it has something to do with the fact that soil has an ecology of beneficial micro-organisms which work in harmony to provide the plants with the natural food they need. These microbes break up the organic matter like composting green waste and by breaking down the minerals into a form roots can absorb. You wonder why your toddler puts dirt in her mouth? It’s because the minerals in organic soil, which is loaded with microbes which are identical to the ones in her intestines (which make up 85% of the immune system), are wanting. It’s nature’s way, she’s just following instinct. I would not recommend her eating dog ‘hotdogs’ (dog doodoo) however, as they probably contain parasites. But if your garden isn’t full of artificial fertilizers and chemicals, but is just pure organic rich soil, it’s probably somewhat good for her.

So, bottom line, I feel better when I work in the soil. And the energizing ‘earthing’ affect also lowers the inflammation in the body which is often caused by free-radicals. It basically makes me feel younger.

For the second reason, I only have so much time and so much space. We live on a .7 acre piece of property in a sub-division, 1/3 of which is in untouched woods, the rest is on a very steep hill except for a small band along the top by the street. The house takes up quite a bit of the non-wooded area. What we are left with is about half an acre. In that space, because of the hilly aspect, it has had to be terraced, and it means walking up and down that hill to garden. So, I’m limited in pure energy with how I can manage growing space. Notwithstanding the challenges, we still have over 80 growing beds. In those beds about half of them are in perennials. We have fruit trees and bushes, lots of herbs, flowers both bulbs and bushes, self-seeding flowers and other beauties. This is for the bees and pollinators and also for the eye appeal. It also makes the neighbors happy.

Terraced pollinator garden in Spring of 2011 Hillside Gardens

Terraced pollinator garden in Spring of 2011 Hillside Gardens

So, we have made it possible to grow in an otherwise inhospitable space, thereby making lemonade out of lemons. There is basically no topsoil on the ground except in the woods, so everything has had to be built up with sheet-mulching techniques to create soil arable and friable (crumbly) enough to grow food crops. Our base soil is red Georgia clay which is about as hospitable a growing environment as concrete and about the same consistency, especially since the builder of this project probably covered his over-costs by selling the top soil. Bermuda grass has a tough time growing here and we have a lovely crop of weeds which are valiantly trying to remedy the terrible soil. Weeds are the band-aid of the plant world, so we let them do their job and only mow them.

One of the biggest advantages of garden over farm is manageability. My husband is the builder of our family and I am the grower. So, that means if I need a raised bed box, he builds it for me. He doesn’t ask me to do home repair and I don’t ask him to weed. It’s a good plan. However, it means that the work of tending to the growing is all up to me. Because I have created a demonstration garden here at HillsideGardens (the name I have given our Permaculture environment here in Auburn, Ga.), it has a variety of styles of growing depending on the particular challenges each area of the land has presented. But if I was trying to grow ‘conventionally’ like roto-tilling the clay, adding chemicals,  trying to amend the soil year after year, on this hill, I would get no place at all. The torrential rains we get here already erode the soil as it is. A garden of loose rich black garden soil wouldn’t have a chance.

Just watering alone would take up so much of my time as to be untenable without a very deep bed of mulch covering the top of the soil to keep in nutrients and moisture, and to keep the soil cool enough to grow things in the heat of summers here. But using all these techniques it is manageable. Even with 80 beds, I can do it using only a bit of help from friends, students and a few valiant interns now and then. With the average size most home owners would be growing, one person in the family can do it with just a few hours a week except for planting and harvesting time. So, rather than expecting everyone to plow up the front yard, with a few raised beds and some container garden spaces, you can grow one heck of a lot of food. If you have kids, you can teach them some things about how to care for themselves, and help you. I learned how to do it from my parents, and even though I grumbled now and then, I remember quiet moments of pure bliss working out in our garden in Michigan.

The last reason I feel it is a very good idea to garden is back to the fact of the rising prices of food. Our dollar is loosing value in the world. That means that fuel prices go up as buying power erodes. Most food you purchase in the grocery store is exactly based on fuel prices because most of the conventional farming done in the world is based on big tractors, petrochemicals, and transportation, all depending on fuel. We actually could have that system fold unexpectedly and have trucker’s strikes without warning depending on the volatile international political situation and the price of diesel. In that case, grocery stores only keep about 2 to 3 days worth of products on their shelves in normal times. You’ve seen how they empty out if there’s a hurricane or other disaster presented – snow storm or blizzard, wild fire, flooding, or other things can all make people run like mad men and women to the store to grab up whatever they can buy and empty those shelves in a matter of hours. If you think you can always go down to Kroger or Publix and get what you want any time, it’s not the most fore-thinking plan. We could face food shortages without warning unless you are prepared.

Look around you. You know your neighbors (if you don’t it’s even more unpredictable). How many of them are armed, how many have young children, how many have a good stock of un-perishable and staple preserved foods on hand, or are prepared to get by without electricity and natural gas to cook. What happens when the stores are empty for more than about 3 days. Most people only have enough food on hand for that much time. What about water? After that, especially with hungry young children, people get desperate. Then, the armed ones will come looking for food because any man worth his salt will not stand by and let his babies die of hunger if he can do anything at all about it. Where will he come looking for food – the house that has nothing growing, the one with nice flower gardens or the one with big visible vegetable gardens?  You do the math. Are you ready to shoot your neighbor who comes up to your door with a gun pointed at you? Or will you have enough to share? Will you be willing to or do you have enough to share at all? What about someone not your neighbor, marauding gangs of gang-bangers loaded for bear? Are you prepared to defend yourself? Or is it better to be prepared but be as low key as possible so you don’t attract attention?

I am one of those people who thinks ahead – probably because I was raised as a Girl Scout with the motto “Be Prepared”. I project out various scenarios and think how I can keep things going on a steady keel no matter what may change in our well ordered world. One of the things that has come up recently through my internet sources is the prospect of martial law scenarios where the gov’t by executive order, can claim all farmland and warehouses of products. Yes, I know, who can believe that. But it’s my business to keep up with things related to my work, and this is serious. It’s a real wakeup call.

If your gardens don’t look like farms but nice flowery pretty beds growing around the ornamentals, even if you are growing flowering kale, carrots, lettuces, spinach, tomatoes, pumpkins and many other edibles among the flowering bushes and roses, only those who are fellow gardeners will recognize you have a food source. Everyone else will think it’s pretty and isn’t Mrs. Smith a good gardener.

Hillside Gardens garden pathway between terraces and raised beds.

Hillside Gardens garden pathway between terraces and raised beds.

Meanwhile you are going out every day and at least putting greens, tubers, beans, tomatoes, and the other edibles on your family’s table. You might have to have put by canned meats and jerky, grains and pasta, beans and other dried staples to round it out, but you won’t starve. You might even be able to help your unprepared neighbors with a meal now and then like in the Great Depression when people helped one another.

If you really think ahead, you’ll have a good store of heirloom seeds put by that you can share – now while people have time and the resources to start their own gardens. Getting neighbors all on board to grow at least some of their own food is the best way I know to ensure everyone does well and no food shortages are necessary. If someone now can grow one 4’x8’ garden bed successfully, he’ll have the know-how to multiply that in times of distress. Skill is the key – and having seeds to grow from plants that are not hybrid or gmo, which can reproduce the same good food seed saved season after season.

The point is that if you build in some privacy and defend-ability to your food sources which aren’t confiscate-able by out of control authority, you will survive it if you have a garden. If you have a big garden, but surround it with hedges or include lots of flowers in the beds, to the eye, it doesn’t say “come and steal this food from me”. It says, ‘not here’. It’s a point of security and protection. Think of it as an illusion you create to move people’s attention off your property and survival and sustenance sources. A nice border of flowers and tall growing ones among the veggies can hide a lot of food! Plus they bring in bees which help pollinate all those lovely blossoms for the squash and tomatoes.

If you do have a large property and even could call it a farm, by growing beds here and there, with other things growing around them, like blueberry bushes, or fruit trees, and it looks pretty, not industrial, you’re more likely to side step problems.

But the thing about a garden is that the size of the beds and where you put them are entirely up to you. Long rows that a tractor can weed are the kinds of fields that a farm would work with. But ever more the self-reliant game is getting smaller but more productive, more varied, more bio-diverse, and using a lot more perennial vegetables and fruits which can be planted in among trees, in orchards, around the house as ornamentals, and in general be inconspicuous. Even using a row of edible plants like fruit trees or bushes can be used as hedging or in other landscaping and traditional ways that ornamental gardens can be planted works to hide what they are used for. People looking at a hedge of butterfly bushes interspersed with blueberries would think it’s just for the flowers or the ‘look’.

The way you create the beds will also fool the average observer. If you plant vegetables in long rows with a fence around them, and it doesn’t look nice – to anyone going by it says ‘vegetable garden’. But if you create ‘key hole’ garden beds (see diagram) or ‘spiral gardens’ for herbs which also include flowers, colored lettuces and vegetables chosen for their eye appeal, mixed in with traditional ornamental bushes and a tree now and then, planting the beds with curved pathways and adding the occasional garden sculpture or water feature, it just looks like nice landscaping. This is particularly good for urban environments. I know an urban farmer in Florida who was a landscape architect. He has the artist’s eye. He plants his vegetables like the nicest flower gardens, using colors and interspersing flowering bushes and bulbs, that are so pleasing to the eye, you would never know he makes $500 a week at a farmers market selling the vegetables he grows.

If you don’t even have a yard to grow things in, you can plant container gardens on a roof, on a deck or balcony, or vertically up the sun facing windows in an apartment, indoors.

Small spaces garden with containers on deck with seeds being started for summer plants Hillside Gardens 2011

Small spaces garden with containers on deck with seeds being started for summer plants Hillside Gardens 2011

There is the concept of ‘guerilla gardening’ where abandoned lots and unused space where nobody cares what happens there (like the parking lot where you work, in the park where nobody goes, an abandoned property where weeds are everywhere, or an old abandoned factory yard  can be converted into growing space. Ron Finley is a guerilla gardener in South Central Los Angeles who has perfected using spaces nobody else thought of – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzZzZ_qpZ4w . Any abandoned container can be filled with dirt and used to grow something. It may not be pretty, but you use what you have. You can even grow directly on concrete with 4” of good soil and something to border the soil – old cinder blocks, bricks, used (untreated) lumber, sand bags, hay bales, plastic milk cartons filled with water – as long as you have a source of moisture. There were experiments done on one concrete slab where food was grown on one inch of soil! Think of the weeds that grow up out of the cracks in the sidewalk. Nature is pervasive.

There was a famous Japanese man named Masanobu Fukuoka who wrote a book called “The One Straw Revolution” who developed the fine art of guerilla gardening. He made little pellets he called seed balls made up of powdered clay, rice flour, sometimes some fine compost and a light misting of water, mixed with seeds. He rolled them by hand by the hundreds, dried them, and put them in a pouch. Then he would locate an empty field, an out of the way road side, or a patch of unused ground, and unobtrusively walk by and throw a handful of these seed balls out on the space. The birds wouldn’t eat them nor the mice. The first rain would come, moisten the clay, which would germinate the seed, and the rice flour would hold it together long enough for the roots of the seed to reach into the new ground. He’d come back a month or two later, and harvest food from between the weeds, nobody the wiser. See more about his techniques at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQOG-dBsgzQ.

I knew some adventurous souls in NYC who took over a shoulder high weed patch of an abandoned lot in the city next to a tenement building. They developed beds at the back of the plot which couldn’t be seen from the sidewalk for the weeds up front. Every year they added a couple of rows of growing space by developing the soil and planting. By the time the rows reached the sidewalk, they had been feeding people in the tenement so word got out and the city just gave them the land. It is now a community garden. It started out as guerilla gardening. This has happened in the heart of the warehouse district in L.A. and other places.  You don’t have to own property. You don’t have to have a LOT of space to grow food. You just have to think outside the box.

I hope this has given you some ideas of why to grow a garden, how to think with it, how to protect the production coming from it, and where to do it even if you don’t own or control the space. Gardening is quite an adventure, it gives you tremendous yield in terms of beneficial foods and resources as well as personal health benefits. It can be a beautiful hobby or a way to protect life and limb. It can also be a great way to help those you love and the people you care about around you in case of harder times. In any case, I think it’s the best idea since sliced bread.

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4 Responses to Why Garden?!

  1. Maggie Robertson says:

    Hi Diann- This was very enjoyable, and I love the Guerilla Gardener! Plant some shit!! Love Maggie

    • didirks says:

      Thank you Maggie, glad you enjoyed it. That Guerilla Gardener is wonderful.
      My interns and I have been planting seed trays the last two weeks. We are still having freezing nights so I’m hesitant to start the warm weather stuff like tomatoes even though we did some of them. I’ll post when they start coming up.

  2. chrismithonline says:

    I love the breeze blocks for raised bed edges – I’m doing that once I find some 🙂

    • didirks says:

      Thank you Chris. They are actually cement building blocks that are turned up with the hole open at the top. They are purchasable at almost any home improvement store like Home Depot or Lowe’s. They are quite inexpensive too. I think we paid $1.25/each. Then my husband painted them on the top and outside and corners the color of my choice which was as close to green grass color as I could find. They make very nice little planter pots for flowers, some small veggies like beets or lettuce, and some herbs. Putting flowers around the veggie plants is a way to entice pollinators like bees and butterflies to hang out in the garden. And for smaller perennial herbs, their roots aren’t disturbed by the digging around them for annual plants. I don’t till my garden, but when they get pulled up at the end of their life, I prefer not to distrupt perennial plant’s roots. The blocks were my birthday present last year from my sweet husband. 🙂

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