Food gardening has always been part of my life. The first vegetable patch I remember was one from my childhood in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s. My parents grew sugar snap peas, green beans, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs in a small garden along the south side of our house. Our backyard, and an adjacent small patch of forest, also held wild blackberries and raspberries. Each summer, my brother and sister and I would harvest the veggies as we played in the yard, and would occasionally have garden treats on the dinner table--if they survived the short trip from the yard to the table without becoming snacks along the way. We also delighted in giving some of the beans and peas to our crazy veggie-loving poodle, who had a particular taste for the sweet snap peas and would sometimes resort to picking them himself if the opportunity presented itself.
After graduating from college, I worked for a time in Washington, DC where my roommate and I created a tiny kitchen garden on the largest window sill of our small apartment. Long narrow pots next to the window held basil, parsley, and thyme, and the window was framed by a rickety "trellis" of thin bamboo poles that supported a few hardy snap pea plants that added greenery (and a bit of stray dirt!) to our small living room.
Next, my husband and I moved to La Jolla, California in 1994, where we discovered year-round gardening on our small patio, and were amazed by the bright colors and diversity of the lush plantings that surrounded us in our new setting. Our 8' x 12' patio with a tiny outdoor dinner table was ringed by large pots holding fiery hot peppers, cherry tomatoes enclosed in tall metal cages, a wide variety of cooking herbs, and a dwarf kumquat tree. All of the plants, with the exception of the kumquat, thrived in the containers and fueled our culinary creativity. At the same time, we joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and began receiving a weekly box of amazingly fresh produce from a local farm called Be Wise Ranch. With the produce from our small garden and the delicious vegetables and fruits from Be Wise Ranch, our dinner menus became much more exciting and we were really hooked on fresh, local foods.
In 1997, we moved north to Oakland, California and rented a small house behind another home. Thanks to another tenant in the front house, every inch of the property in between our homes was bursting with flowers in bloom. The landlord had also had the foresight to plant a purple plum tree, a Meyer lemon tree, and golden delicious apple tree in this small space. When we moved in, each tree must have been at least 15 years old, and produced substantial quantities of fruit. In its best year, we counted over 800 plums from the single tree--so many that we, and all of our neighbors, gorged ourselves on fresh plums, cooked them into pies, and made them into jam that lasted through the rest of the year. The apple tree's annual 200 pieces of fruit ripened slowly over the course of several months allowing us to savor their crisp, tart flesh in September and enjoy them as they sweetened and softened slightly through November. The Meyer lemon produced fruit year-round, and always had several perfect specimens awaiting our kitchen experiments and near-constant lemonade thirst.
In addition to these bountiful trees, I set up two small garden patches in our tiny yard and produced great quantities of tomatoes, cucumbers, ollalieberries, potatoes, lettuce, basil and other herbs. I double-dug the garden, added loads of compost, and planted everything very intensively to save space.
When our first daughter was born and later toddled out into this garden, she explored her surroundings with her hands and her taste buds. She learned at a very early age to allow the tomatoes to ripen from green to red before eating them, and knew from the age of 2 years old that nasturtiums were edible but other flowers were not. The garden also surrounded her with fluttering butterflies, chirping birds, and endless insects and worms to pick up and study.
With the arrival of our second daughter in 2003, we had outgrown our tiny rental house and it was clearly time to buy our own home. We settled in nearby Berkeley later that year, in a house high up on a hill with a beautiful view of San Francisco Bay. Because of its location, our lot is on a steep hillside that descends about 40 feet over its 100 foot length. Luckily for us, the people who lived here before us terraced much of the yard and made it into a much easier place to garden.
Over the last four years, I have been systematically replacing many of the ornamental plants in our backyard with ornamental edible plantings, and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience of owning a garden and watching it mature over time. I have also been able to shape the landscape further to make room for more plants each year.
In addition to our large fruitful garden, we have become CSA members again, this time with Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, located about 90 miles from Berkeley. We have been receiving a weekly CSA box from their farm year-round for the past three years. Last year, we also began a relationship with another local food producer, Wind Dancer Ranch, who sells meat that they raise sustainably and humanely on their land. We now buy most of our pork, lamb, turkey, and other meat from them and it is absolutely delicious. We are also lucky to have an excellent farmers' market very close to our home that offers locally grown organic foods, and we are frequent visitors to the market.
We are very pleased with these arrangements and the delicious fruits, vegetables, and meats we buy from these sources. I have not yet tried to precisely quantify the proportion of organically raised "local food" in our diet, but I would guess that it makes up more than 50% of the food we cook at home. (I guess that calculation will be the subject of a future article!)
It is clear that these choices also affect our young daughters' perception of what they eat, and they often remark on how tasty the foods from our garden are. They adore freshly picked cherry tomatoes and eat them with glee that is usually reserved for special treats like candy. They wander through our garden and graze on whatever is currently in season, from raspberries and borage flowers to sorrel leaves and strawberries. They are beginning to mark the seasons by the ripening of different crops, and can already tell me at 4 and 6 years old, which crops will be the next to mature and what they are most looking forward to eating from our garden in the next season. Not bad for city kids! I hope they will grow up to enjoy gardening as much as I do.