Reclaiming the Yard: The Rich Rewards of Growing your own Food

My parents' well-used back yard

For me the process of constant inquiry began with a then curious observation. A trip to Kroger was taking longer than expected because a college friend was reading the labels on a spice jar. MSG gave him migraines. I stood there impatiently and made some joke about it not being a novel. It had never occurred to me to question the shiny plastic wrapped goods in an overly cooled and on the verge of frigid grocery aisle. Later came conscious consumerism—the ensnaring and mentally taxing idea that every dollar spent is a vote and one that carries far more weight than the illusion of political choice. Add sustainability to the mix and a casual trip to the grocery store quickly turns into a labyrinth of ethical dilemmas. The drone of air conditioning begins to conjure images of billowing smoke from a power plant. A cup of coffee or a bar of chocolate bears the stamp of slavery. A pile of reddish tomatoes offers insult to millions of exploited immigrant workers. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a pursuit that addressed environmental, health and social issues in one swoop? No more squinting at labels or trading values for cost? Luckily there is just such an activity that conveniently touches on a wide variety of conscious elements, can build community, costs very little, and offers an opportunity for useful exercise. It happens to be one of the oldest activities known to man, and no, it’s not prostitution. Perhaps the title tipped you off: growing your own food is where sustainability meets action and where well-meaning consumers can make a real difference in some of the most critical issues of our day.

We live in an area where most people either own or have access to land. The obsession with chemically-treated lawns is a relatively new development, and was traditionally viewed as an idle pursuit of the wealthy. For the current trend, we owe thanks to the English and golf clubs. Grasses native to North America aren’t suitable for the fastidiously manicured lawn. In 1915, the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked with the U.S. Golf Association to find an acceptable combination of grasses that would produce the desired English look. It is quite literally all downhill from there. Drinkable and expensively processed water is poured on precisely-mowed blades of fescue, while rain washes suburban chemicals into storm drains. According to the EPA, 30-60 percent of urban freshwater is used for lawns (depending on the city), 67 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used annually, 580 million gallons of gasoline are guzzled by highly-polluting lawn mowers (a standard lawn mower operating for one hour emits the equivalent pollution of a medium-sized car traveling 45 miles—there is no catalytic converter), and around 20 million acres of usable residential property is tied up in lawns. Is there a better way? Of course. Use some or all of that space to produce food. Grow ornamental varieties of useful plants in the front yard, and be amazed at just how much you can get out of the back. Turn your plot into part of the fight against industrial agriculture rather than be a contributor to a wasted and polluted environment.

Instead of trying to add to The Pulse’s excellent home gardening section, I have chosen to interview four experts who all operate on a rather ambitious level. Their insights are relevant to anyone wishing to make the most out of their space, even if at a smaller scale. Hector and Susie Black of Cookeville have been in the organic farming business for most of their 80-plus years on this planet. They grow a variety of crops, but sell mostly blueberries. Carol Berning of Lascassas recently retired from the Rutherford County school system where she was the spectrum supervisor. Carol likes to spend some of her time painting, pampering her 75 chickens, and tending her large garden. Lastly, Pam Rowlett of Murfreesboro grows much of what she eats. In a question-and-answer format, here is what they have to say, paraphrased from my sketchy notes (or in the case of Pam, directly from emailed responses).


Hector and Susie Black, 20 miles north of Cookeville, on a sticky Tennessee summer night after a workday at their farm:

1. What did you do prior to farming, and what was your primary motivation to farm?

We spent 2.5 years as social workers in a poor Atlanta neighborhood. I (Hector) came back from World War II with ideas of a different path. The pace of social change is frustratingly slow. With farming, we could still support social change while pursuing a lifelong love of growing things.

 2. Did your background prepare you for the farming lifestyle?

I (Hector) am from a suburb of New York. Even in our small yard, I was amazed with plants. I studied half a year of agriculture before the war.

Yes, I (Susie) am from a Hutterite community and grew up on a farm. We grew all of our own food.

 3. Do you have any advice to young people thinking of getting started in farming? (scale down a bit for the home yard approach)

Be prepared for long, hot, arduous work; love it. Be wary of romanticizing … Of course it is okay to love the beauty of nature, but be prepared to work.

 4. How have things changed in Tennessee since you started?

Hunting was a way of life when we came here. Now it isn’t. As far as farming is concerned: I have changed, not it. When I started, I sold from a van on the side of the road. The emergence of farmer’s markets really helped us, even though there wasn’t initially a huge interest in organics.

 5. How did you decide on rural Tennessee?

We had had it with cities. We enjoyed museums, concerts and plays, but it wasn’t enough.

 6. Have you ever been tempted to use pesticides or herbicides?

Yes, I (Hector) tried RoundUp once. I had read that it wasn’t all that bad (a very long time ago, before such information was common knowledge). I applied it very carefully to an apple tree. For two years, that tree had deformed leaves on the lower branches. Never again. Later I found out that it isn’t actually biodegradable, as claimed. The company that produces it, Monsanto, can’t be trusted.

Mr. Rooster by Carol Berning

Enjoying some afternoon garden scraps

Carol Berning’s 75 chickens have a symbiotic relationship with her sizeable garden, each feeding the other:

1. How long have you had chickens?

About 6-7 years now.

2. What first motivated you?

They are just cute little critters. My grandmother also had chickens, and I have a cherished photo of my grandmother with them. Also, my love for animals motivates me.

3. Do chickens have personalities?

 Yes: some like to be held, some sit on my shoulder, some are more friendly while others are more curious. There is definitely a social hierarchy. I have three to four generations together and have to be careful when mixing them.

4. What do your neighbors think?

I am far enough out of town that it doesn’t matter. Check with local ordinances if you are considering chickens in the city. If allowed, the numbers are typically four to six hens and no roosters. One option is a chicken tractor, which is a movable coop that allows the chickens greater access to bugs and grass.

5. How do you deal with the waste?

I use it in the garden. I also use scraps from the garden to feed the chickens, in addition to their feed.

6. Do you have any advice for the aspiring chicken farmer?

I would say to read a lot about chickens, so that you know what you are getting into. Just like any animal, chickens can get sick. You also have to protect them from predators. It is important to know about their space requirements, their shade needs, and about their life cycle.


And finally Pam Rowlett, who puts a lot into growing food for her entire family:

1. How long have you been growing your own food?

I have been growing my own food on and off for about 25 years, but seriously for the last 8 years. The lack of tools hindered my beginning efforts at gardening. Tillers are expensive, so we started with a borrowed one. My first serious effort at gardening was on a plot of ground loaned to me by a local cattle farmer, Donald Summar. He even treated me to a supply of manure for fertilizer.

2. What has been your greatest challenge?

My greatest challenges lately have been connected with my choice to grow organically. Organic growing poses many obstacles, but I feel that it is worth it. Everything I read tells me that the young and the elderly are most affected by the chemicals that are commonly used to grow our food supply. Since one of my primary reasons for growing is to share with my family, that includes my two (soon to be three) grandchildren, and my husband ‘s parents, I feel it is important to make sure the food is the very best quality that I can produce.

3. What has been the most rewarding aspect of your efforts?

It is very rewarding to hear my 6-year-old grandson Blaine say, “Oh, gram, you fixed me green beans!” When he still lived in Murfreesboro (my son is in the Army and stationed at Ft. Bragg now), I kept Blaine two days a week and he was becoming quite the gardener. He could identify what some of the plants were when they were only a couple of inches high. He eats a wide variety of vegetables, and I attribute that in part to his helping me grow them. He was as proud of the green beans and peas he picked as I was. Now I garden alone, but every trip I make to Ft. Bragg I carry a case of canned veggies or pack a cooler full of frozen ones.

4. Do you find that growing your own food builds community?

I think gardeners are a special breed of people. They tend to share what they know about gardening and genuinely want you to be a successful gardener. They all want to show off their gardens too. I know some people that take pictures of their tomato plants just like they would take pictures of their kids. Most gardeners want to share their produce too. I always plant more than I can use. One can never be sure if this is the year that the tomatoes are not going to do well (2011), or that the green beans are going to be eaten by deer (2010), or that the groundhog is going to eat all my sweet potato leaves (2012). Consequently, I always have something to share. A couple of years ago, I felt God leading me to share my food with a single mom. I have had the privilege of sharing for a couple of years now.

5. What motivates you the most?

Well provisioned by the garden

I wish there were some way to educate people how to grow their own food. I subscribe to a couple of gardening magazines: Organic Gardening, and a self reliant-type called Backwoods Home. I really enjoy the Backwoods Home magazine. There are articles about a variety of practical things like making your own bacon, cleaning your house with chemical-free cleaners or how to build a barn. My husband’s grandmother, Willie Rowlett, taught me how to can vegetables, how to make jelly and how to cut corn off the cob and freeze it. I don’t know where I would be without her taking the time to teach me. That is why I think it is so important we teach anyone that wants to learn about these things. It is almost a lost art. I have seen a resurgence of interest in gardening and canning since the economy has been hit so hard. If people could just understand how much they could subsidize their food budget, they would give it a try. When my husband was in college at Tennessee Tech, Granny would pack us up a bag of frozen vegetables to take home with us after a visit. She would pack as much as she thought would fit in our tiny freezer atop the fridge. We felt like she had given us gold! Sometimes I would just open the freezer and stare at the veggies. They were comforting to me. That meant we ate like kings for a couple of weeks. I personally think that gardening could subsidize our medical budgets as well. People who eat healthier foods are generally healthier. Even the act of gardening requires some level of physical activity, which we could all use more of.

I also think it is important to buy our food locally. Whatever I don’t produce, I go to the farmer’s market to buy. I like to go to the various farms and pick blueberries and strawberries when they are in season. If everyone would buy their food locally, the farmer would benefit and our local economy would benefit as well. I am reading the book Animal Vegetable Miracle for the third time this year. It is about a family that decides to eat only what they can produce, gather, hunt or buy within a one-hour drive of their home for one year. That inspires me. Gardening is so very rewarding. I know this sounds silly, but I thoroughly enjoy the whole process, from planting to cultivating (ie. weeding) to harvesting to canning. I just love to hear that ping of the jar sealing. It is music to my ears! You don’t have to have a degree to grow a few tomato plants in a pot on your patio (my 6-year-old grandson does that), or to grow a few pole beans on a trellis. You just have to want to and get started. A pantry full of canned vegetables gives me a sense of security.

In a strange betrayal of our agricultural origins, it has become a quiet act of subversion to grow your own food. From the interviews above, we see that gardening is much more than a hobby. It offers a solution to many of our most pressing collective shortcomings: the vanishing of community, the disconnect between man and food, the inherent inefficiencies and evils of industrial agriculture, and the lack of physical exercise to name a few. Close your eyes and imagine a neighborhood where colorful and misshapen globes peak out from thick bunches of dark green leaves as you take an evening stroll. You know your neighbors well, and they don’t mind as you lift your excited child to pluck an apple—an apple that you don’t have to stress about because your neighborhood has set meaningful standards. Further down the street you catch a glimpse of corn tassels, dangling beans, plump melons, and bright red tomatoes, and you secretly wonder what magic is in that compost. You can take comfort in the victory that your neighborhood represents—a victory for community, health, and the environment—or you can simply enjoy the scenery and fresh air.


About the Author

Ryan is passionate about sustainability and smart energy. He studied at Tennessee Technological University, as well as Universität Trier where he received a dual degree in Mechanical Engineering and German. His experience includes lab and production support at Schott AG, PV Business consulting in Germany with EuPD Research, as well as his current position as a smart energy engineer at Schneider Electric. Ryan is also an active member of CCL Nashville (Citizens Climate Lobby), and is on the board of EarthSave Louisville.

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