This is happiness.
As a weed lifts out of the soil, a fat worm comes to the surface. A myriad of beetles and spiders and insects squirm in the soil. This is happiness. It is also the indicator of healthy soil.
We garden not because we have to—there are farmers’ markets and grocery stores, restaurants and food carts aplenty in urban areas. We garden to stay connected to our food. The smell of the earth as it awakens in the spring, giving birth to last year’s seeds; the soft, dark brown soil, clumpy and moist; the joy of putting a seed in the ground and eating a fresh green bean 90 days later.
I’m going to periodically diverge from my normal here at Spectrum Culture. Sure, restaurant reviews are great, but there’s more to food than just going out. There is something viscerally pleasing about the DIY of gardening. I’m hardly an expert, but I’ve been at it for the last four or five years, and I’ve picked up a lot. Mostly from my house-partner whose mother taught him amazing tricks of the gardening trade, and who governs much of the weeding and takes care of the soil that gives us so much produce for the tiny patch of land we have.
We have a small front- and backyard in a very urban area in the central eastside of Portland. “Portlandia” episodes have been filmed on the streets and in the businesses near my house (once, even in my neighbors’ backyard behind my house). But Portland is more garden than grass. On my street, a scant five houses have grass—the rest of us opt for utilizing our land in a better way: producing food and beautiful landscapes.
What we’ve done (and I’m hoping to give you ideas here, rather than just preach about how awesome our garden is) is split up the front yard into a few zones. We have a bonus west-facing side yard barely five feet wide, which we reclaimed from arbor vita. With a two-story house, we have room to trellis a lot of plants. Our back yard is primarily used for just chickens and composting.
Zone 1 is the front patio/fragrance garden. As a sitting area, we thought it would be nice and welcoming to have our pretty flowers and fragrant plants such as jasmine which just bloomed. This is where we have dinner in the summer; a reused, iron fire-bell serves as a little fireplace for chillier nights; it also doubles as a table (currently, an enormous orchid sits atop this table).
Zone 2 is the herb garden. Just outside the front door and to the east, we have thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage and a variety of other herbs. This makes it easy for us to just pop out the front door to get fresh herbs while cooking. I have a thing for black and purple flowers, so along the edge of this, we have planted a variety of black iris plants. Black tulips have already sprouted, flowered and died. Our tea plant has become a bush since we started amending the soil.
The third area is our primary food area. With a raised bed and two side beds, this is where we grow chilies, eggplant, tomatoes, and whatever else we feel like growing for the year. We’ve had broccoli and kale plants so large that someone called the city on us for obstructing the sidewalk. We planted crocus on the east side of the planter bed years ago, and they dutifully peek out in March for a couple of weeks and then die off.
On the other side of the sidewalk is our north-facing, sloped berry patch. This is where we grow more native berries of our region: strawberries and blueberries. Two years ago, we planted six strawberry plants who all fruit at different times of the year. Now, every year, we have strawberries (which our chickens love) from June to August. By planting different varieties, the timing of when things come up and die off creates a bit of a symphonic quality to the garden. Again, with such a small plot of land, it’s fantastic to reuse the same spot over the course of the seasons. The clematis and passionflower separate the fragrance garden from this area; iris provide a little bit of structure and cover for the strawberries from the hottest western sun in the summer.
The small planter sits on the border between our yard and our neighbors’. We planted one artichoke for its fruit as well as its purple flowers. It has since seeded and a ton of volunteers are currently growing there. We planted arugula last year, and it spread like wildfire; it currently is sprouting as groundcover, giving grass a run for its money.
The bonus side yard, which is barely four feet wide, gives us a little space to grow climbing plants and some additional berries. Last year, we planted two fruit trees (quince, which is used for jellies for its pectin, and Italian prune plums) in front of our dining-room window so that we can prune them and collect the fruit without having to leave the house. This is the area where grow the aggressive plants, such as zucchinis or other squash, as well as raspberries, beans and peas. It gets the least amount of our attention, as it is primarily used as our neighbor’s driveway area.
Now, all of this needs a good weeding, but the purpose of this article is both to share with you what we’ve done with our limited space , give you some ideas as to what to do with your place, as well as provide context for many of the yard-to-table features I’m planning to share over the summer.
Lastly, I would like to mention that gardening is about soil, water, and light. The placement of your plants, the timing of when they bloom and the color scheme you may have all play a part. Two years ago, on this tiny plot of land, we added mushroom compost from a local vendor. Compost is incredibly inexpensive when bought by the cubic yard. The best part about mushroom compost is that it doesn’t have the strong manure smell of many soils. The next year we added two more yards. This year, we need nothing but light and water.
So, it’s April, and growing seasons vary, but we’ve put in some Early Girl tomatoes in our main food area. These will allow us a quick-win of fresh tomatoes and then we’ll tear them out and put in another round of Roma or Paisano or Black Cherokees. The strawberries are beginning to flower, and the clematis and tea plant are growing mightily.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll start planting more herbs and plan out what other vegetables we will want to have coming up in the summer. And as this happens, we’ll cook it up and share it with you.
Happy gardening. May you have very wormy soil!