Forging Time to Garden
My pots of gold in our old backyard in Golden.
In 2013, my husband and I moved into a home in Golden, CO with our 15-month-old. It was a half-acre horse property with no landscaping to speak of save two neglected trees that died in our second year. I had a vision when we moved into this tabula rasa, to turn every inch into productive land, get chickens, maybe a pig. I was going to completely integrate our plate, grow all of our food. I fell into a YouTube-induced reverie, watching city folks go back to the land, back to the root of things. My husband came with me on this journey for the first year or two.
Delta, Colorado 1976: On the tractor with my dad engaging in some of my earliest gardening efforts.
For me, this wasn't such a far-fetched dream, as my parents, back-to-the-land hippies bought a rural western Colorado farm in the mid-70s for about $20,000. We had a large garden, chickens, ducks, goats, cats, and dogs. I loved growing up this way, free to roam on ditch trails, chase chickens, and eat homegrown tomatoes from the vine. I wanted to recreate this idyllic childhood for my girls. It is worth noting that my parents sold the farm after about seven years, went their separate ways, and put the money they made on the sale of the house into our college funds (tacit parenting message: go to college; don't be a farmer!).
Golden, CO 2016: Managing the flock with my husband and collecting the eggs with our girls.
For my husband, who grew up in Boston and Stockholm and is a committed environmentalist, this was an interesting thought experiment that became his personal nightmare once we had our second daughter and the reality of planting and maintaining a garden as a sole food source came into full focus. Farming was not his jam. He wanted free time to ski, climb, and mountain bike. His idyllic vision was to have time to ride bikes everywhere one needed to go and walk to the coffee shop within view of beautiful mountains. This was a large part of what facilitated our move to Durango, CO.
A fresh start in Durango means forging time* for biking, camping, and hiking IN ADDITION to gardening.
Lessons Learned in Our Golden Garden
The seven years we lived in Golden were full of learning and by learning I mean mistakes:
We planted an "orchard" of five trees (thanks Mom); all but two trees in the orchard died due to the extreme wind and the lack of access to water; we transplanted the remaining fruit trees to a more protected place; we bought more fruit trees and shade trees; we enjoyed several harvests of Stanley plums and red and golden delicious apples. The peaches and sour cherries mainly went to the birds.
We rented a large rototiller (thanks Dad) and tilled the entirety of the yard; we built 12 raised garden beds; we bought soil; we built a rabbit-proof fence around the raised beds; we set up a drip system; we abandoned the raised beds as they were too far from the house; we created new garden beds in the front yard; we enjoyed several large harvests of lettuces, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes and got to know our wonderful and eclectic neighbors even better; when the front yard garden was nearly complete we decided to move.
We raised chickens for eggs; we raised more chickens for meat; we learned we don't like cutting the heads off chickens; we did not invest in an automated system to secure the chicken barn which lead to the "Chicken Rapture" as I like to call it; all 19 chickens vanished without even a feather remaining as evidence; we think it was a bobcat; we did not buy more chickens.
I share this story as I prepare to write about planning a new garden. Within the above list of mistakes there were many things we didn't do that would have better supported our goals as environmental stewards and gardeners:
We jumped in without taking a season or two to study the sun, wind, and drainage over the seasons causing loss of effort, money, and time.
We did not consider the expertise of local growers and ranchers. What a weird western idea, "I will be a self-sufficient individual rather than a part of the larger productive and talented community."
We did not get to know the soil and improve its overall quality to support its microbiome and carbon sequestration capacity.
We did not consider how we were going to water the garden before building raised beds and planting an orchard so far from the house.
It was toward the end of our time in Golden that I started reading and studying a better way to garden, discovering permaculture design principles and the tenets of regenerative agriculture. Both of these philosophies support forging time* to garden because they ask you, the gardener, to work with nature and natural cycles, not against them, in essence, go slow to grow better later.
It also wasn't all lessons/mistakes. There was so much joy that our garden facilitated as well. Our girls had the idyllic experience of raising chicks, growing food, and playing in the dirt. I forged bonds with people I might not have ever met by just being present in the front yard, futzing around the garden. We offered a suburban view into what is possible for a yard beyond grass. I am not sure if we saved any money, but we sure did eat a lot of nutrient-dense and delicious food.
My New Garden Design "Commandments"
Tomatillos for salsa, salad greens, herbs, and radishes are known to be popular produce where our family is concerned.
The lessons learned in Golden and ideas from permaculture and regenerative agriculture have led me to my new design rules for garden planning in Durango:
Know Thy Land: This year has been about observation of the existing plants, the position of the sun, the moisture levels, the runoff areas, the wind and weather, the deer, the kids on their bikes, and where they like to ride/play, existing tree health, and how we live and move in the house and the yard. These all tell a story about which beds to work with first, which risks to take now, where to exercise restraint for a season so my time, money, and back-breaking labor will not be misplaced.
Know Thy Family: I will only grow what I know my family will eat because what is the point of going to the effort of growing an exotic green or vegetable that no one will eat, i.e. collard greens. I will only expand my operation as my family's pallet widens. This year I made a list of common veggies I purchase at the grocery store and these will be the only veggies I grow next season.
Know Thyself: I will only plant what I can manage and truly care for well this summer season. I still have a day job and there is no way I can single-handedly vertically integrate our dinner plate; however, I sure can grow heavenly homegrown tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, melons, and more. I want time away from the garden to camp, travel, bike, and climb with my girls during the magic of this middle childhood when they still like us and want to do things together, so this year will be about right-sizing the garden and keeping my ambitions in check.
Know Thy Community: There is an especially good local farmers market here with some exceptionally good veggie farmers who grow way better root crops than I will be able to with the current state of my soil. There is also a regenerative ranch owned by a young family in a nearby community where we can purchase grass-fed beef, forest-raised pork, and pasture-raised chicken. I will let the experts do the work and pay them fairly for their efforts.
Know Thy Purpose: I grow food because I love to grow food, but I now have more reasons than ever to grow:
Combating Climate Change: Every bit of food I grow or buy from a local farmer or rancher means many fewer carbon emissions. Properly managing the soil means that much more carbon can be pulled from our trees and plants back into the soil.
Reducing Food Packaging Plastic: Our largest contribution to our trash bin each week is plastic packaging from food. Each veggie we grow means much less plastic waste.
Improving Health and Well Being: I am one of those folks that buys everything organic, especially since being diagnosed with MS in 2016. Growing our own food and improving our soil means that everything we eat has fewer toxins and more nutrition. I am also hoping to save a pretty penny on organic groceries.
Over the next few months, I will be sharing how these lessons and these "gardening commandments" are showing up in the Durango garden plan. In the meantime, what are the lessons you have learned through your garden? What are your reasons for gardening?
* forging time (verb) to form or bring into being free time especially by an expenditure of effort