In California, three years of bone-dry, rainless weather are making many of us start to think outside the box. Harvesting greywater is not something most of think of doing. In fact, in this country, we’ve had the luxury of flushing clean, potable water down the toilet for decades now. But, things are beginning to change as more areas experience drought, fire, flooding and other drastic climate change. My latest practices are motivated by my love for my edible garden. So in addition to the many small changes we’ve made this year—simple things like replacing all the faucet and shower heads with low-pressure ones and reducing the number showers we take by half or better—we now keep a 4-gallon bucket in the shower.
This is how to make a bucket work for you. If you run the water to let it warm up before showering, collect that first cold flow directly into the bucket. When the water warms, start the shower and stand in the bucket. Once you’re wet, I recommend you shut the water off while you soap up. Rinse off, and collect a bit more in the process.
When you see the bucket quickly fill with the run off, it inspires you to shorten those showers. After all, the goal is not to fill the bucket, but to see what might have otherwise been wasted. Some of the unexpected benefits of bringing a bucket into the shower are:
Shorter showers! More awareness brings its own changes
There’s more water for your container plants and garden
You can use it to flush the toilet, too
After the shower, we cart the bucket to the garden, where we use it to water our vegetables first, and the extra goes to any flowering plants. When you do this, a new mindfulness takes hold, and the garden is happier; I can breathe easier, too, knowing that I’m doing all I can to conserve this precious resource.
Hello, all you fresh-vegetable lovers. This message is for you. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s definitely not too late to grow your own greens. This includes collards, kale and broccoli, known as the Brassica—the mustard family. In fact it might be an excellent time to start them, since when it cools down around here, these veggies thrive and the white moths that obliterate them during the summer months seem to disappear altogether.
To start, get yourself some organic seeds at a plant shop or supermarket. I recommend you start the sprouts on a sunny windowsill and transplant them outside once you have a true leaf or two. You can put them in the ground or in a planter box with some organic fertilizer and organic chicken or steer manure. Don’t worry about the foggy weather; these guys love it. You’ll be eating fresh broccoli in about six-to-eight weeks. You could be ready to serve them by Thanksgiving. Imagine that!
I almost forgot: Brassica includes delicious homegrown cauliflower. It’s the best when it goes straight from garden to table. Come to think of it, it’s the only way I really like cauliflower. It’s gotta be fresh.
Everything I learned about grapes, I learned during my visit to Stonebridge Farm in Colorado, where the viticulture is a force of empowerment and a return to the grow-your-own values of self-reliance and sustainability. Even though I know a bit more than I did when I first put my grapevine in pot, I just mostly like eating out of my garden, so I’m also game to learn all I can about how things work. Before I knew what I didn’t know, I put the grapevine on the front walk. The benefits of this are that I can see it as I come and go and give it attention and water as needed. Plus, it gets full sun for most of the day, while still enjoying the relative shelter of the house, which protects it from wind and inclement weather. What a rush it’s been to see the vine reach up toward the sky like an Olympic champion with her arm held up in triumph. This is the kind crazy wonderfulness that I want to live with every day.
Our new grapevine is productive and healthy. She grows quickly, but the shape is wrong at least in my mind. (By the way, most producing plants are female to me, just as all cats are female and all dogs males. That’s just how it is for me. Isn’t it the same for everyone?) I’m thinking about how to prune and train her. We have time to work on these things next year once she’s in the ground.
I found out from Farmer John that because we don’t add hormones, something that is often done to enlarge commercial grapes, they have a thin, delicate skin, which breaks open with the slightest pressure, releasing their sticky-sweet syrup for a finger-licking delight. They’re simply delicious, but there’s no way they’d make it to market. We had only one cluster to sample this year, but the future seems promising. Our plan is to plant the vine in a sunny spot this fall and let the monsoon do its work.
So, the plan is, ahem, rain this fall. (Hope someone out there is listening.)
Grapes are just another of the pleasures of urban farming. Soon I’ll be able to add them to the menu when Hal asks, “What’s for dinner?” I can always say, “There are plenty of greens and grapes in the back.” Today there’s mostly a lot of curly and dinosaur kale and collards, but that’s food. The new lettuce is in, and it’s tender and delicious. Next year we might have grapes to go with our blackberries and the new bed of strawberries we put down. Really, you don’t know what you’ll get until you try.
Here’s a little peek at grapes growing at Stonebridge Farm in Colorado:
This month we have uncharacteristically hot weather after a particularly dry and warm winter season. This means that the garden is a riot of purple and burgundy exploding pea bushes, passionflowers and curly kale. We’re taking out a large colander and collecting vegetables for the table every day. This unexpected bounty feels overwhelming at times, almost like too much. That’s why we share.
I nip a bag of lettuce and throw in kale and broccoli as toppers and give that to a colleague. We eat salad and greens in the same meal. We juice enormous cauliflower leaves before they turn brown and make green smoothies with store-bought fruit. The blueberries are a pluck-and-eat treat, since it’s us or the birds for those jewels.
Even with all the giving and eating, there are times when it feels as if we’ve just got too much, but my heart tells me, Waste Nothing. I lop off the onion flowers low to the bulbs. They’re nearly three-feet long. I decide this unusual seedpod will look very nice in a bouquet of flowers. The compost bin is temporary lighter as we sit around admiring crazy onion flowers that I never even new existed before.
Remember Plaster of Paris? Gosh, I sure do. I remember a fifth-grade art-class project in which we mixed the plaster powder with water and filled our molds to make three-dimensional reliefs of our choice of animal. I made a butterfly, which had a great big air-bubble dimple on its wing caused by air trapped on the bottom of the mold. I didn’t care a bit. I painted that butterfly, wrote my name on the back of it, and took it home to perch on a windowsill. I was thrilled with my creation. Recently I shared this experience with some girls from my community. What started with a little paint and plaster ended with dancing and laughing.
Even though it may seem like a simple thing, mixing plaster can be a challenge. Things can go wrong; the mix can harden quickly on a warm day, or it might never dry. The oldest of my guests, a sixteen-year-old, mixed the plaster with some hesitancy after reading the instructions while the younger girls worked on painting the casts I had poured earlier in the day. As she worked, the plaster alternated between being too thin and too thick before it clumped up, and then when we added more water, it liquefied, but only in places. We were only able to get one viable cast from the mix. As I observed Kea, she was just a little afraid to get her fingers dirty and quite tentative about pouring the thick goop into the mold. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Dive in. Use a rag if your hands get dirty.” She grew slightly more emboldened yet remained guarded. I mentioned that the plaster could also be used to repair a hole in a wall, to which she nodded casually. Of course, being competent is important for a person her age. I wanted to let Kea have dignity, while gently letting her know that making mistakes is only natural when you’re doing something for the first time. I’m not sure she believed me, but she walked away visibly relieved that our time was over. As the oldest girl, I knew I had to let her take the lead with the others in an activity. She had to be in charge.
When Kea rejoined the younger girls, the plaster painting was winding down, and the youngest ones were getting extra silly mixing paint colors for fun. The signal that the activity was over registered, and I began to direct the girls to clean up their areas before heading down to the garage for planting seed starts.
In the garage, I gave each girl a small tray with six cups that I had set out earlier. I showed them how to fill the tray with soil from a large orange bucket that contained potting mix. After the demonstration, I put Lea in charge of managing the soil distribution while I gathered the seed packets from my special gardening drawer. She lined them up by age and had the job done by the time I got back with the seeds. The magic started when I read of the seed choices. Each girl got excited over different seeds. They were sweet and eager and tender with the tiny seeds. I made sure they each took a good look at all the seeds to see just how different a bean seed is from a collard and tomato. They were impressed and focused on the task of planting and observing. They covered the seeds with a light layer of soil and watered them. After labeling their trays, we headed out to the garden so they could see what their seeds would look like in a few weeks with sunlight, care and attention.
In the garden, the second-oldest girl, nine-year-old Kia, was ecstatic. She ate raw broccoli and snow peas and poked her nose into every bush. She was fearless and clearly a naturalist. In the garden older brother and father to Kendall, Eli, who had been weeding and sowing with Hal, watched over the brood and his five-year-old daughter with tenderness. After showing them how to plant garlic cloves, we gave the girls garlic and let them plant them wherever they wanted. Soon Kendall grew jittery with the awareness of the terrifying bugs in the garden and had to retreat to the safety of the house. Lila, on the other hand, was instructing the older girls on how to identify onions and garlic. She’s finally comfortable in the garden. After some pictures, we headed inside for refreshments, followed by show and tell. Big smiles and good-natured teasing flavored the early evening.
In reality, an art project is just an excuse to fill our house with the noises and laughter of children. The girls showed off their art projects while we ate snacks and cranked up the stereo. We laughed at our own foibles and teased each other over our eccentricities. We found the easy place between newness and trust and found we liked what we discovered.
Managing the ecosystem in the garden is one of the biggest jobs for an organic gardener. Too much of anything can mean disaster. The rhythm of the garden commands respect and patience. I mostly serving at the whims of the seasons and try to balance the conditions and needs of the plants with the weather and pest control. Gardening is my time to slow down, a respite from computers, phones and any stress. I retreat into the land, and it holds me steady.
I love to watch bumblebees at home in my garden. They let me know exactly where they are with a nice loud buzz that must be a greeting. I respond with a hearty “Good Morning, Ma’am Bombus. How do you do?” To which I normally get told what area is off limits to me for whatever activity is on my task list. I’ve planted small beds of the bees’ favorite flowers here and there to keep them happy after the lavender is harvested and the blueberries are ripe. This is an opportunity to extend community to my flying insect pals. I work in a different spot from my bee friend in deference to her earlier arrival, chatting amicably all the while. I’m teaching my eight-year-old helper not to run and scream when she sees one, but to say a greeting and watch her skillful work. It’s working. She’s learning not to respond to sighting them with blood-curdling screams. Instead, she now greets them nicely if cautiously. I have to laugh because I was exactly the same way when I was eight.
This week’s big job is hacking back the Mexican Sage, which is prolific and unplanned. It creeps in from under the fence of my neighbor’s yard. It’s not native but the humming birds love it, and I cannot do without their charming presence so I care for the sage as if I had planted it myself. I’m removing the woody dead branches and the spent flowers with mildew tops so that the new growth can be unencumbered by the old. I’m sure the aesthetics of the landscape pleases the birds and bees alike. We are all in good company as the rain promises to see us into an early spring.
While weeding the vegetable beds and I notice two healthy broccoli plants are floppy and wilted. After a careful inspection, I notice the mouth of a burrow that connects where each plant previously stood tall and fertile and the tenderly nibbled roots. This critter wants shelter from the resident hawk, that’s obvious. It also likes to eat well. But if he takes out any more healthy plants, I’ll offer him up to Madam Hawk myself! Who is this new fellow? I ask myself, and How do I make friends? I imagine a plot of carrots secretly devoured and my heart sinks. I’ve got to find a solution quickly! This week I will plant some garlic next to the Broccoli because I heard from a friend that gophers hate garlic. I’m schedule for a Saturday seminar on gopher control, and in the meantime I’ve scooped out a few healthy spoonfuls of cayenne pepper into all the holes I could find. I’m not sure that will work either, but most critters are not running around munching chili peppers for fun. I’m desperate, people, and I don’t want to hurt the gopher, but I do want to eat my broccoli myself! Wah!
Since the rains have started, I’ve noticed some mildew or rot on some of the blueberry branches. I don’t know what this means, but I’m on high alert. So much of Gardening is waiting and responding to nature. My life has become bound to the cycle of growth in the garden, and an interdependency has formed between us. We need each other to survive. I cannot let a day go by without connecting in some small way.
Gardening is contagious. When people come over and see our garden, they say things like, “I could probably do this at my house.” It goes on from there. I find myself sharing insights, putting random seeds in soils and working in other people’s gardens. My mother calls me for progress reports. We’re planning an expansion to new areas and thinking about adding a compost bin and chickens. I’m suddenly a locavore, harvesting collard greens minutes before dining. It’s all too easy even though I spend hours in the garden every week.
Maybe this all seems normal to someone, but not to me. This is an extraordinary occurrence. I’m a woman who grew up in New York City, believing that food comes from cans in supermarkets. The idea of fruit growing on trees did not take root in me until my late twenties when I walked around Oakland in late summer, eating from the bounty of the neighborhood. The metaphorical light bulb turned on in my consciousness, and I knew then what I had never understood before—that food grows from the earth. You can laugh, and please do, because I did and still am laughing, but this is a reality for too many urban youth, who like me, have not experienced a food culture unmitigated by mass-produced and commercially-driven enterprises, packaged in cellophane and built to last. So it is with this charge that I dutiful show people pictures of things growing in my garden, and when possible, share its bounty. I snap snow peas off the vine, offer one and eat the other warm from the sun because I know from experience that the caterpillars won’t wait either. I bake delicious homegrown vine-ripened blackberry-laden desserts, sauté garden-fresh collards, juice kale for my friends and bring a just-cut cauliflower to a dinner party. We have choices that nourish us.
I want two things now. The first is to share my excitement, knowledge and passion for gardening with others, which is no surprise since I am a teacher. The second is to share this magic with my community. How to do both is slowly becoming clearer, more certain.
Many of my garden experiments are instinctual and daring. Soil quality in our yard varies tremendously from rocky to claylike to dusty. The sun is intense all day in one corner year around, while it shifts seasonally left of center. When something doesn’t look right, I make adjustments. For example, pests attacked most of the beets in the first bed we planted in late summer; they had grown crowded and knotted, nothing like the carefully spaced seedlings I originally put down. I decided to transplant them to a lower bed and to clear out the infestation as much as possible. After uprooting bunches of them, I worked a new dry bed into small sections and unraveled the beetroots that had grown twisted together. Within weeks, the new bed was lush green and burgundy with every indication that the transplants were thriving. I had a new problem owing to a minor change. I hadn’t mulched the new bed as I had done with my initial plantings. Now I have a generous weed problem that keeps me attentive and reflective. No one told me I could do this. I just tried it. I’m like a mad scientist with a shovel and chicken-manure compost. Those beets look about ready to eat. As I water the garden, Mr. Hummingbird supervises the care of the Lilac. He knows that one’s for him.
Lessons learned in the garden are easily shared intergenerationally. When I helped some friends start a vegetable plot in their garden several weeks ago, I made sure to recommend mulch. These are the lessons that can be shared from observation, trial and errors. My little expert preadolescent gardening friends, twin daughters of fellow urban gardeners, recommend that we release ladybugs at night and get them a house to increase retention. I listen carefully to their wisdom and ask questions; after all, they’ve been gardening all their lives. I weed, plant and water with my eight-year-old friend. I know she understands the land better than I do already. One day, if all goes according to plan, she’ll eat avocados from my yard. They’re her favorite.
There are other valuable lessons to learn from gardening. Our distinct San Francisco microclimate is a good teacher. A longer growing season also means cycles that aren’t as clear as a traditional spring-planting and fall-harvesting ones. The latest cold spell took out several lovely perennials, including a blooming fuchsia. I was surprised and saddened by the death. I would have taken action against the frost if I had anticipated its demise. The lantana and the fuchsia had both been thriving, now they have withered and died. Our dark leafy greens can weather it all, but delicate blooms favored by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds need to be protected during periodic cold fronts. Our dry, sunny and cold winter does not nurture the earth, especially when one considers there is no dormant cycle. I’m learning to pay attention to new kinds information. Also, one feels and understands drought intimately when gardening. How does one bed a blooming garden? Compost, mulch and water until the rains come. Pray for rain.
While we continue to expand the garden, breaking and carrying out decades-old concrete, driving questions emerge. Can I really live off my land? Is this a viable option? Will this garden sustain us? Maybe with some chickens and more diversity—we’ll plant carrots and beans this year—we can make it last. We take fewer visits to the market, but produce is cheap. Maybe this year I’ll learn to can and make jam. I’m not going back to the land, because I didn’t come from it, but I’m claiming something even more powerful and magical: growing a life in my home, giving an entirely new connotation to the concept of land ownership. I’m now the steward of my little plot, responsible to a pair of mating hawks, resident humming birds, our local squirrel and some prowling raccoons and cats, among the numerous life forms we witness on any given day. Dead bees break my heart and crawly bugs encourage me. It would be wonderful for this ecosystem to sustain us all for years to come. This is possibly a legacy that redefines local and organic food. I know what’s in it because I know what I put into the ground. I’m not a farmer, am I? I’m too deeply in love with the smell of wet dirt not to be. I now dream of grapevines and fruit trees, ferns and broccoli, strawberries and dahlias. What did I dream of before?