Time to Get Back to the Yarden

Michaele AlexanderOur Yarden

So what really is a “Yarden” you might ask. Since it is a word I made up long ago, I will tell you. To our family it is what our suburbanish yard has become in the last few years since we moved from Southern California to Nevada. It means a yard garden full of food of questionable nature (“what is that and can we eat it?”) and native wild things that fill the soil and air and critters that our cats hunt and consume and our dogs only dream about because they worship the cats. It is a place full of growing wonder, magic and yummy things. Wriggling, jumping, scooting, waddling, waving and buzzing things. And this year more zucchini than I knew what to do with.

When someone tells me that they are reluctant to try yardening at home in case they do it wrong or it is too much work I have to laugh (on the inside of course so as not to offend). We are an excellent example that good intentions coupled with a great attitude and some dirt under the fingernails will eventually pan out. We were determined when we moved to give my husband’s farming instincts and my love of everything that grows the opportunity to flourish.

By serendipity (and a good friend who is a knowledgeable real estate agent) we had found a wonderful home who’s soulless builder’s special landscaping had been abandoned long before the people who were waiting a year for a short sale contract to go through had backed out. We fell in love with it a day later and saw the possibilities with it’s kid friendly cul’ de sac and wrap around back yard in spite of the unfinished interior DIY construction faux pas and places where some unruly dogs had chewed all the doors and baseboards and made gaping holes in the ground outside.

“We are Artists” we declared to ourselves (picture super hero capes flying in the wind now) “and can build ANYTHING”. So we bought it and lived in our RV near the marina while my husband and friends gutted and cleaned the inside. Being chemically sensitive I stayed away. Soon fall was in the air and the moment of inhabitation arrived (a good three weeks after our two indoor-outdoor felines had determined living solely in the RV was not the cat’s meow). Everyone loved the new house. Our dogs cavorted. The cats explored.

The next spring we began to formulate a concept for the outside. With great consideration we called in some plant and tree experts. We wanted to temper our enthusiasm with sensibility and someone else’s good permaculture bio-dynamicish opinion. So after receiving the death knell for our two birches in the back (a proclamation of imminent removal due to some horrible dis-ease) my husband decided to replace them with what I not so lovingly called a raspberry “stick”. My husband had also purchased a blackberry stick or two. I stared at the five or six inches of stick with a scant filament of root protruding from the bottom and found it hard to understand how such an intelligent human being had been talked into spending good money for what looked like an afterthought destined for a game of fetch, with our smaller dog at that.

After some homemade compost, ocean water and who knows what else went into creating the tiny whole (yes I do mean “whole”) that was to become it’s home we stuck it in the ground. There it sat, quiet and stick like, the butt of my jokes for several months. I have personally feasted off wild berry bushes all over the world and none of them looked like a stick. Then one day as if by magic someone had replaced the stick with a tiny branch with three little leaves. The stick had awoken! We traveled. We returned. The same someone had replaced it with a bush. Nothing to write home about mind you, but something that was certainly on it’s way. We reveled in the small harvest of berries that first year. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of a plant that the next year managed a height of over four feet encompassing a six by nine foot area reaching out over and impeding our walkway.

Our family had also relished the thought of planting packages of wild flower and vegetable mixtures with pretty pictures. We poked them around in the soil in an area very intentionally prepared. We took indelible markers and carefully labeled wooden sticks (which unbeknownst to me would bleach into unintelligible bits of wordless wood) so that we could categorize and identify each plant. This was to be “the official garden”. We called it the Amoeba because we had re-purposed the cement edging that came with the house and made an amorphous blob as none of them were straight. Our cats watched with great interest. The dogs snoozed. Eventually our daughter got bored so we “broadcast” the rest of the seeds in the remaining area with great abandon and went about our day. We traveled. We returned. The birds had a party as the cats came with us. We traveled and returned again.

A jungle emerged. Gorgeous crimson poppies grew next to buckwheat, basil mingled with yellow squash. A strange purple striped plant we came to identify as orache started small but soon towered over my head because we didn’t know to eat it when it was young and tender. The sunflowers became taller than my husband who is six foot three and larger round than serving platters. The birds would sit with delight on the ones that had grown so heavy as to droop down like shower heads and curl up at the edges. They would dangle upside down reaching for the seeds, pull them out one by one and deposit the shells carefully inside the bowl made by the overturned flowers. Our cats meandered and slept among the plants looking beyond content.

In the surrounding area the support plants such as comfrey had a charm all their own. They were placed about near things such as the apple tree sticks and the hazelnut sticks which were expected in my errant estimation to give fruit about the time our young daughter would be an adult. I had of course heard of comfrey tea. But had never seen the plants. Cute little green leafy things they were. The comfrey were next to the other highly desired plants in order, my husband said, to “fix nitrogen into the soil” and what not. Important business. They were the size of the small six-pack plant starts one finds in the garden centers of the big box stores.

A few months later they had practically eclipsed all else. Gargantuan leaves eclipsing palm fronds reached out in all directions from the centers of each plant with beautiful delicate flowers sticking out from the top. We cut them back because they were blotting out the sun from, well, the raspberry stick for one. A bit later they were back again bigger than ever. Some strange lace like plant flourished “supporting” here and there too. It could have come straight from a fairyland. I also discovered walking onions striding around the place like graceful under sea creatures lending what ever they lend to the soil in a way only Dr. Seuss could have dreamt up. I thought that was all they did until my husband and friend let me know how good they were with eggs and ghee. My naivete was bountiful.

When I really think back our first go at Yardening was the saving of an avocado pit. I had remembered sticking the four toothpicks halfway down one like a strange satellite and balancing it on the rim of a jelly jar as a kid. This was back when the idea of “organic” food and paying for “bottled water” would have caused us to clutch our bellies and go into a fit of laughter at something so absurd. I recollected that I had grown a plant. I can’t remember what happened after that because I was so totally into horses. And I had an ant farm. And a tiny snake named Peaches. And a cat named Chocolate. It was cool though. Right up there with the cooking of a potato with some spare wire and two nails stuck into the wall outlet but lots safer. Either way it seemed a quaint thing to revisit with our little daughter. We assembled glass, water and toothpicks to support our pit. We stuck it in the window and after what seemed forever to a preschooler, it grew. And grew. Now it is five feet tall and has to live in the house due to the climate here (avocados don’t fancy snow).

Shortly after it’s sprouting we had, in a fit of enthusiasm, decided to grow lots of starter plants from organic heirloom seeds for the local school garden. A garden which was under construction. Had we known that it would be a good half year behind schedule, that the plants would be taking over every inch of our large back patio and that we would be begging our neighbors for miles around to adopt them like the desperate owner of a large litter of puppies we might have rethought things.

Then there was the sweet little ice cream banana plant that my daughter had to adopt from the local farmer’s market before we moved from the coast of California. Beginning at about three inches it is three years later pushing at the ten foot ceilings of our new home and has given us lovely little hands of bananas that oozed all over our floors from the flowers. It continues to grow as part of our family jungle in the living room next to “Figgy” and “Lemoney”. (Avocado is in the entry room enjoying the south facing sun.)

Figgy is a dwarf fig. It yielded three lovely figs earlier this year but they fell to the floor and dried sometime when we were up at Lake Tahoe for a couple of weeks. I suspect our dog Cinnamon got them upon our return as she looked really happy and guilty all at the same time. Lemoney is a variegated dwarf lemon that we get to pollinate with one of my paintbrushes because every time we have ventured putting it outside in nice weather the wind blows all the flowers off of it. If I cough too close to it the flowers fall off. The last two years Lemoney has dutifully given a single exquisite lemon of unparalleled taste. We carve into it like a family surrounding a holiday roast. This year I plan to harvest our lemon tree in celebration of winter solstice. It is presently still blooming. Smells great.

My point is we have made wonderful, interesting, beautiful and yummy mistakes and it’s all good. You can try this too. The worst thing is you have created better soil for next time (aka compost) and the best thing is you grow too much and trade or give it away to friends. If you don’t presently have any friends you’ll make new ones. Think about it. A bag of organic dirt is financially doable. If it is not, then go to the nearest clean wild place where you can find something called dirt, scoop it up in a box, carry it home, add your kitchen scraps and start there.

We laugh together in the face of over domesticated pedigree water sucking lawns propped up with pesticides that only serve to give kids like ours a skin rash or far, far worse. Get some dirt under your nails and between your toes. Embrace fungi (or Fun Guys as we like to call them). Invite your friends to do the heavy lifting (with you). Learn on the web for free. Experiment. Talk to people who know. Talk to your plants. Give them names.

Be Brave, be Bold… Be a Yardener!