Joyce's sister's home in California has tasty treats on the small city lot, including two avocado trees, a lemon tree, and boughs of a neighbor's orange tree that overhang the back fence. In her younger days, the sister and her family grew other edible plants as well. Now she has the occasional assistance of a certified organic gardener. Flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds fill the planters. As soon as the sun burns through the marine layer, the bees are busy.
The gardener has started suggesting some edible plants that would be easy for Joyce's sister to care for and harvest. The tomato plant pictured is one of two added this year, along with one broccoli and a blueberry plant. Being late December, the green tomatoes still on the vine are not expected to ripen, nor the abundant blossoms produce fruit. However, the plant has already produced a steady stream of red ripe tomatoes of many months' duration.
The plant is growing in a small section of earth between the house and the patio. It's a southern exposure, and the warmth from the building and patio give the plant a boost. Joyce's sister is collecting seeds from the last of the fruits. The gardener will plant them next spring, for he had selected an heirloom strain that breeds true.
There is much that is wonderful about this vignette, including the vision of a home with this same type of tomato vine growing just outside the kitchen door, a hundred years ago. We wonder why so many of us abandoned the idea of a kitchen garden for decades before learning to appreciate once again the pleasure even a few plants can provide.
If you have ever visited a farm house kitchen at canning time, you know the work to preserve a large vegetable harvest for winter is hot and exhausting and uses a lot of fuel for the stove. This is definitely a task better done on a scale larger than a home kitchen.
Iowa is a farm state that was once famous for its vegetable canneries. Today, not a single cannery exists in the entire state. Most acres are planted to corn or soybeans. Those crops are fed to animals or made into ethanol or biodiesel fuel, or simply exported in dried form. None of it is canned within the state. The result is that neither the home gardener nor the small commercial fruit and vegetable farmer has the option of using a local commercial cannery for its produce.
But agriculture and gardening are changing again, in many ways for the better.
Previous Green Seniors Posts Dealing with Gardening
In September of 2007 we published a Green Networks article on Guerrilla Gardening, featuring the exploits of Richard Reynolds, who is based in London. In April of 2008 we posted another Green Networks article on the Slow Food Movement. These articles are a small sample of the types of "green" gardening (and "green" eating, also known as eco-gastronomy) that are rapidly growing in popularity.
Guerrilla gardening means cultivating land you do not have permission to use, often working at night. The motivations can be many, from a simple desire to create beauty, to growing food for the hungry, to anger at seeing land abused. One thing all guerrilla gardeners do is show that things can be better than they are, and that ordinary people can achieve results. Many guerrilla gardeners end up getting authority to (or shaming authorities to) garden their plots in the light of day, where many others can join in, expand the movement, and change an entire neighborhood for the better.
Urban Gardening, Community Gardens, and Food Co-ops
Guerrilla gardening is one form of urban gardening, a general term for cultivating small spaces in cities. At www.greentreks.org a section called Rough Terrain describes the ongoing development of urban gardens in Pennsylvania, and especially in the city of Philadelphia. Joyce was there over a decade ago and can attest to the beauty and sense of place that the gardens added. In this one city there are 465 community vegetable gardens and over 1,000 flower gardens. Many of these gardens are the only green spaces among tall apartment buildings.
The people of Sacramento, California, tend to live in single family detached homes on city lots having a yard between the house and the street, as well as one behind the house. There was a decades-old city ordinance that was so restrictive, any sort of front yard garden, even a xeroscape, would be illegal. The people changed the ordinance so that diverse landscapes could be built in front yards and could include food plants. The group's website, www.sacgardens.org states: "Many backyards are unsuitable for growing food due to Sacramento's tree canopy, so the option of front yard gardening is critical."
Food co-ops are surely as ancient as agriculture and take many forms. In some towns, food co-ops are developing in which members pay a fee to local fruit and vegetable farmers at planting time and then get a cut of the harvest. This spreads out the risk for the farmer and helps the supply of locally grown food match the demand. The cost is likely higher than at the supermarket, just as food from Farmer's Markets typically is higher. For those living on city lots, the most affordable solution is to grow as much fresh produce as possible at home. Home gardens have never lost their popularity as a hobby, and now they are once again economical and "green" as well.
Which brings us back to the tomato plant growing by the side of the house on a small city lot.
The change that an astute gardener can bring about for his or her clients is remarkable, in particular for the seniors who have always enjoyed eating from their gardens, but who can no longer do the work that edibles typically require. What if we want to take the idea beyond a few plants?
An Australian named Bill Mollison coined the term permaculture in the early 1980s. Permaculture is first an ethic of the relationship people have with one another and with the earth, and the idea has spread around the globe. At www.midwestpermaculture.com, the mission is expressed as "Redesigning Our Lives, as if Caring for the Planet Mattered."
As for the more technical side of permaculture, Bill Mollison describes it this way: "wastes become resources, productivity and yields increase, work is minimized, and the environment is restored." That still doesn't tell you what the body of knowledge and experience that constitutes permaculture is, but it sums up some key elements.
Unlike forms of gardening that may or may not be organic (do not use industrially manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, or any artificial additives), permaculture is organic gardening that is integrated with environmentally sensitive landscaping, home construction, and economic sustainability. Permaculture is not just a method of gardening, it is a way of living in harmony with nature. The statement that work is minimized with permaculture is not a hollow claim to gain adherents. Work by people is minimized when nature is understood and utilized rather than ignored or spoiled.
Permaculture examples often include animals. For instance, ducks allowed to roam in a garden may eat harmful insects while adding fertilizer to the soil. Water from fish ponds may be used to grow lettuce in a greenhouse. You get the idea of wastes becoming resources.
Supporting permaculture around the globe are websites, demonstration sites, and teaching teams. A typical course in permaculture lasts a week, after which the student can begin to design gardens using permaculture principles. Some students succeed so well, their projects become new demonstration sites, people visit and are impressed by the results, and even more people want to learn this for themselves. The Permaculture Institute in Australia has an interesting website at www.permaculture.org.au.
If you check into local resources and groups, you may find permaculture gardens and other examples of sustainable farming and urban gardening to visit and to try out. There is a lot more happening out there than you think! No matter how much or how little you are physically able to do in a garden, there is a way for you to participate and to enjoy growing food.