Artemisfolk's Blog

Artisan Crafting, Traditional Folk Skills, and Urban Homesteading

The Urban-Cottage Garden, Heirloom Plants, and Food Sovereignty June 17, 2010

Filed under: Food,Uncategorized,Urban Gardening — artemisfolk @ 3:29 am

“Fighting hybrid and GMO seeds is critical to save our diversity and our agriculture,” Jean-Baptiste said in an interview in February. “We have the potential to make our lands produce enough to feed the whole population and even to export certain products. The policy we need for this to happen is food sovereignty, where the county has a right to define its own agricultural policies, to grow first for the family and then for local market, to grow healthy food in a way which respects the environment and Mother Earth.”

– Chavannes Jean-Baptiste,

spokesperson for the

National Peasant Movement of the

Congress of Papay,

May 14, 2010.  Haiti.

We start in the dark heart of a Midwestern winter where I sit, reading about gardening and dreaming up ways of sticking it to the man. And what sharper stick could there be than one that’s staking up an heirloom tomato in my genetically diverse, organic, primitive, low cost, urban garden?

Before, I have been a happenstance gardener: a patch of ground here and there in my nomadic wanderings from coast to coast. I use old seeds found in a drawer or a free pile. Maybe I buy a few healthy starts from farmer’s market. Sometimes something magical occurs with sun and water, and poof! Flowers bloom, tomatoes bear fruit, we eat. But this year it’s different. This year, I’m invested. This year, I start everything from seed.

I started with Seed Saver’s Exchange, a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. SSE’s 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. They permanently maintain more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties. It was hard to choose just twenty or so to grow in my yard!

With help from my housemates and careful research at the public library, I chose heirloom varieties of some amazing vegetables and herbs. My favorites this year are Hidatsa Shield Beans, Blacktail Mountain Watermelon, and Asian Tempest Garlic.

In February, I made a chart of what to plant when and where. Some plants do better if started indoors and some are better off directly seeded in the ground. I am committed to letting the seeds, sun, soil, and water do what they were made to do with as little energy and interference from me as possible. I tell my friends: I don’t grow plants. Plants grow on their own. I cultivate plants, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. In the proper environment and circumstances, plants don’t need me at all. It’s us humans that need plants.

March turned our sun porch into a plant propagation station. I checked the beds every few hours for signs of life, watering gently to keep the surface soil moist. An early warm-spell germinated our seeds and they poked through! The first thing I learned was that all spouts look about the same, with two heart shaped leaves unfolding. The second set of leaves is more telling of variety.

“As soon as the ground is workable,” the farmer’s almanac states, “plant ground cover and peas.” Unused to the Wisconsin winter, I waited a little past when the ground first became workable to plant my peas. So most folks had fresh peas weeks before I did. It made me think a lot about what life would be like without supermarkets, how long into spring one would have to live off last year’s preserved harvest before this year’s crops would be edible. I can understand why someone would take a chance and plant early.

The most daunting task was to dig the beds out of the coil of foreign grasses. Digging into my lawn without the express permission of the “landlord” was a little scary, but in my mind, it was also a vital component of my ethical stand as an urban homesteader. I resurrected some geometry skills and figured out how much space and how many cubic feet of soil I would need to raise my beds. Tip: digging after a good rain makes the work far less demanding.

For encouragement and guidance I turned to Food Not Lawns, a global organization focused on turning yards into gardens and neighborhoods into communities. Food Not Lawns inspired me because they made gardening accessible: you don’t need a farm, all you need is your own lawn, or a balcony and some pots, or even just a window sill. They also helped me understand the essential elements of food security, why urbanites face the biggest risks, and how we can encourage food sovereignty and build community connections at the same time.

Starting a garden this way took patience. It was the end of May before we planted the chard, kale, spinach, and arugula. It was mid June when we planted the butternut squash, beans, zucchini, and lemon cucumbers, and carefully transplanted the hillbilly tomato, purple tomatillo, and poblano pepper starts.

Initial start up costs have been minimal. In addition to the seeds, the only other things I had to purchase were the garden tools themselves. I got two rakes, two shovels, and two hand tools, used, for a total of $10 from someone on Craigslist. Luckily, Wisconsin has a legacy of farming, and for good reason. The soil is rich and healthy so I only purchased a little. I used bits of things found for free on people’s curbs: chicken wire for a compost bin, a porch railing for the beans to climb, an old rocking chair frame for the peas to trail up. Look for a future post about seed preservation: I hope to cut the cost of next season’s seeds by more than half by collecting and preserving seeds from the plants growing right now.

I’ve also had a lot of help from my neighbors. One neighbor is lending me soaker hoses to cut down on watering time and costs. Another neighbor who works with a CSA network got me free straw-mulch from a local farmer. Several neighbors with more established gardens offered me their cast offs: strawberries, Echinacea, raspberries, ferns, hosta, and daylilies were all gratefully accepted.

The biggest cost so far has been time. I am happy to give mine because working the ground and cultivating living things gives me so much energy, inspiration, and hope for the future, that gardening itself is as valuable as the vegetables it produces. Friends and housemates rallied to help. Some are looking forward to the harvest and some want to spend time playing in the mud.

Now, nearing the end of June, the seeding is done, almost everything I planted came up. I am filled with anticipation, imagining what the back yard will look like in September. I could spend pages griping about the evils Monsanto is wreaking upon the world, but my time would be better spent nurturing the diverse plants they aim to wipe out, and cultivating food to feed my global family of resistors, activists, subsistence gardeners, small farmers, and urban homesteaders.

Ready to get growing? Check out my resource list below for books, magazines, websites, and neighborly information.

Growing and Gardening Resources

Books I read this winter:

  • The Budget Gardener, by Maureen Gilmer
  • Squirrel Wars: Backyard Wildlife Battles and How to Win Them, by George Harrison
  • Food Not Lawns, by H.C. Flores
  • Guerrilla Gardening, A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries, by Richard Reynolds.
  • Carrots Love Tomatoes, Secrets of Companion Planting, by Louise Riotte
  • Roses Love Garlic, by Louise Riotte

Magazines I poured over this winter:

  • Mother Earth News
  • Small Farmer’s Journal
  • Back Home Magazine
  • Countryside

Websites I perused or haunted:


4 Responses to “The Urban-Cottage Garden, Heirloom Plants, and Food Sovereignty”

  1. Elif Sonmez Says:

    You are inspring (that was a typo, I meant to write inspiring, but “inspring” is actually more fitting), Shannon. I am so glad you decided to devote the time and energy, the digging (fighting with the existing foliage is always my cussing-point, they just don’t want to get out of my way!) – the risks, as they look from the front – in your garden. Inspiring. Isn’t the tenacity of life fascinating to watch in action; those little bean seeds will grow no matter what once they get started.

  2. Allie Says:

    So inspiring! Thank you for all the work you put into our garden! This blog post is a great reflection of its green glory. Can’t wait to read your next one!

  3. Alan Says:

    What do you do for water conservation, if thats even a relevant factor?

    Also, have you checked the property, water, and soil against pesticides? I hear Round Up has quite a half life, and the properties previous owners might not have been as sensible as you. After all, Round Up used to be advertised as bio-degradable, until they got sued for false advertising.

    • artemisfolk Says:

      On water conservation:
      First, I take full advantage of the rain. I plant right after and right before a rain storm. The Midwest weather provides a lot of it this time of year so we’ve hardly had to water at all. If the weather dries out, we’ll use drip hoses borrowed from a neighbor. We water when the sun is down and it’s not breezy so not much water evaporates. I chose many drought tolerant varieties of plants so they’d need less water. Watering only once a week once roots are established will encourage roots to go down deep instead of spreading out shallow. Raised beds retain water better than flat ground (we built one in front with scrap wood), but make sure your wood isn’t pressure treated or painted). Mulching with straw, dead leaves, or even shredded newspaper or cardboard around seedlings will keep moisture in the surface soil as well.

      Luckily, the oversight (or lack thereof) from the property management company ensures that nothing more toxic than a lawnmower has made contact wit our yard in quite awhile. Checking the soil for lead is an important aspect of urban gardening, and usually there’s a NPO or city service that will do it for free.

      Round-up is indeed a nasty biohazard. FYI, Round-up was brought to us by Monsanto, the same people who gave us DDT, Agent Orange, Bovine Growth Hormone, and the first nuclear weapons. I wrote a brief but exciting expose of Monsanto for an anti-corporate-corruption site where I cross post. You can check it out at: Bull Moose.

      Finally, I say pick your poison: the petrol that carried the food from another state or country, the pesticides used on conventional produce, the modified gene allergens, the bio-accumulation of toxins from the soil, water, and Round-Up ready seeds, the front-yard fall out zone bordering the street, the air itself! Call me a fatalist, but we’re basically doomed. UNLESS, as the Lorax says. And that’s where we come in- do what you can with what you have. It makes a difference.

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