How could just a few short years make such a huge difference? Turns out that it was a slippery slope. It started with house hunting. My husband, Michael, and I wanted something that we could fix up to suit our tastes. It had to be older and somewhat inexpensive, plus have good "bones" and character to build on. We also didn't want any HOA to tell us what color we had to paint our house or tell us not to hang our laundry to dry. That led us farther away from the city and suburbs. Once we determined that we could have some land, we threw in other criteria: a wood barn, some water (whether creek or pond), good school district (though kids weren't even on the agenda yet) and that Realtor favorite, location, preferably near the airport and between cities that we could find work in. It took us little more than a year, and that was only because a friend's boss knew a guy who knew a guy who might be selling something that could interest us. Turns out it did. Making it ours was just about as difficult as finding it, and remodeling it proved similarly frustrating.
While Michael worked on the house, I turned to the landscape. Though I could kill a houseplant just by bringing it home, I thought I could do better outside with Mother Nature's help. First, I had to tackle the weeds that had proliferated during the house's unoccupancy. I got a high the first time I mowed, breathing in the fresh air and admiring the look of my "green carpet" that hugged the contours of our property. I started reading books and visiting nurseries. Always edging on the tree-hugger type anyway, I devoured information on native plants and sustainable gardening. I connected with the earth when I sowed my first row of lettuce and was grateful when an actual plant emerged, healthy, crunchy and delicious. It became an obsession. After work, I'd tear off my business clothes, jump into something nearing rags and trudge around the garden until I couldn't see a foot in front of me. My husband joked about installing stadium lights; I thought that wasn't a bad idea.
I also read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver and two books by food journalist Michael Pollan: "In Defense of Food" and its predecessor "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I didn't jump on the organic food bandwagon right away, but I did fall off the processed food one. I am a believer in organically grown food, just not if it travels from Chile, slurping up oil on the flight and somewhat defeating the purpose. I prefer it fresh from my own backyard.
Dropping processed foods, as expected, was a challenge, as they are everywhere. During one shopping trip, Michael and I made a pact not to buy anything with more than five ingredients and none of them could be high fructose corn syrup. It took us about an hour, and our cart, maybe half full of food our grandmothers could identify, rang up more than twice the total of the mom in front of us who was stocking up on Captain Crunch and other assorted boxed items. It's expensive to eat right, so we decided to grow money on trees (and plants).
By some estimates, a $50 investment in a backyard garden can save $500 in food bills. We certainly had the room for one with 9 acres but started small by hand-digging two 4' by 20' beds with shovels using a trenching method. We like to do things the sustainable way (without gas or oil), which is to say the hard way, really. The following year, we added three more beds the next spring, followed by three more the following year. Of course, I have plans for expanding and reorganizing the whole thing this spring.
The expansion and success rate, however, have thus far not correlated. I had hopes of canning and freezing surplus food last year, but that did not happen for a number of reasons: a wet spring, mild summer, pest attacks (insects, moles, cats, deer) and neglect. Since both of us work(ed) full-time jobs and like to travel, the garden admittedly was unattended on occasion. Going forward, the things that I can control, I will fix; the rest is up to the whim of the weather.
This year's garden, I already know, will be improved. I've invested in drip irrigation, row covers, beneficial insect seed mixes and fencing. We may also have full-time farm hands since Michael and my father were laid off. We have decided not to wait for someone else to determine our career opportunities; we're going to make our own destiny. Design Farm is the culmination of two ideas and passions: architecture and agriculture. You might wonder what one has to do with the other, but as we've discovered (and will continue to explore), our educations in design have led us to this simpler place. We have great plans for the merging of our lifestyles.
Join us on the journey!