The Homesteader of My Heart

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I remember my first glimpse of our new backyard, the way that my heart (and my feet) sunk a bit as I surveyed the gray sludge covering what we hoped to make a garden. The clay soil was packed so tight, so impenetrable to the delicate roots of new plants. Could a garden ever grow there?

Over the spring and summer and even into the fall, though, I worked with the soil. Before planting anything, I added a thin layer of compost and tilled it in. I planted seeds and seedlings, watching as their roots slowly broke through some of the clay. I mulched around all my plants with straw, sprinkled chicken manure fertilizer, and dug in more compost. Our house faithfully saved all our fruit and vegetable scraps, lugging stinking buckets of them to the compost bin and mixing them with straw and leaves. At the end of the season, I pulled out all of our old plants and tilled in the straw by hand. We drove around the neighborhood one Sunday afternoon, filling our little car with bag after bag of our neighbor’s leaves, later spreading those leaves in a thick blanket over the whole garden. In the spring, after rain and snow and time have broken them down, I’ll till those in, too, along with more compost.

It has been a process of adding and tilling. Of adding some more and tilling some more. Of waiting.

As I look over the resting winter garden (barely recognizable now under its blanket of snow), I am so aware of the slowness of this process. In just one season I saw definite improvements, a gradual loosening of the soil, better growth in the second planting than the first, but it’s just the beginning. A garden like this needs long-term commitment. It needs a gardener who will faithfully, slowly, work to amend it over the course of years, not just days or months. It needs a homesteader who is willing to claim it and say, “This is my land,” before they see any fruit.

The process of healing and growth in my heart right now feels equally slow, marked by a similar pattern of digging and adding and pulling things out by the roots. But my heart has a homesteader, the Homesteader. He lay claim to this territory long before it bore any fruit, naming it as His own while it was still tight-packed with the mud of fear and hurt and striving. He knows just what this soil needs. And He is committed to it for the long haul, for years, not just days or months. As I feel my boots sinking into the mud of this messy healing process, that reality feels so comforting to me.

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“Beautiful Things”

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

You make me new, You are making me new
You make me new, You are making me new

– Gungor

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Good Soil

I realized recently that I never posted much – or anything, really – about our garden this year. Any moments this spring when I might have written about it were instead engulfed in schoolwork, weddings, moving, and traveling.

The garden was part of the initial vision and invitation for this house. When Maggie bought the house, the entire backyard was a big expanse of blacktop, the former parking lot for a business that once used the house for its offices. But Maggie, with her farmer’s heart and a desire to see land restored, saw beyond the blacktop. After she bought the house, she had the pavement broken up and removed and fill dirt trucked in. She built pathways sectioning the garden into four square plots and sectioned off a row in the back for berry bushes.

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Over scones, Maggie and I sketched out ideas for how to divide the space, listed available tools, meticulously wrote out conditions for participating in the garden, and brainstormed a list of friends who might want to garden a piece of the land this first year. She accompanied me to the Kansas City Community Gardens where I picked out an armful of seeds – spinach, lettuce, kale, beets, bush beans, black-eyed peas, zucchini, pumpkins, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, marigolds, and zinnias – and ordered sweet potato, raspberry, and blackberry plants.

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And then Maggie moved to France, leaving the garden and our plans in my hands.

Derek and I spent a chilly Saturday in late April, just weeks after our last snow storm, spreading compost, tilling the garden, and planting the earliest seeds. As my rubber boots squelched in the gray mud, sodden from the rainy spring, and the tiller stuck in the thick clay of the soil, I struggled to imagine how anything could grow in that space. Even so, when our friend Lebeka (now our newest housemate) joined us to help spread compost and plant seeds and as everyone who planned to participate in the garden stopped by during the day to work in their own plots, I felt hopeful about the garden and the relational fruit that might grow from it, even if no vegetables or flowers flourished.

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Despite the initial sense of hopefulness that sprung out of that first planting day and the literal sprouts of vegetables that followed soon after, discouragement soon burgeoned as well as I watched nearly all of what I planted struggle to grow at all in those first couple months. I learned firsthand the importance of good soil as I watched the heavy clay of the soil fall aside in solid chunks whenever I dug into it with my trowel and witnessed the pools of water that settled on the surface around the plants before drying into a solid, impenetrable crust. No matter how much I weeded, watered, and mulched, the plants struggled to thrive. They simple couldn’t. Their delicate roots couldn’t push through the heavy clay and even with the compost we mixed in before we planted (too little, we realized), the plants couldn’t access the nutrients they needed. In those conditions, they quickly began to starve. Many of the sprouts soon withered and yellowed and what remained of our spinach went to seed before it grew even two or three inches high.

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I felt tempted to give up on the garden, to wait and start fresh the next year with more compost or perhaps even with raised beds that bypassed the soil entirely. But instead I began loosening the soil around each row of plants before watering to allow the water to seep deeper down. I sprinkled nitrogen-rich chicken manure fertilizer around my kale, lettuce, and beets to provide more nutrients. I dug out the dirt around all my pepper and tomato plants and replaced it with compost from our compost pile. As I began to give the plants the air, water, and food they needed, slowly they began to revive and grow.

Now, over four months after we first planted the first seeds, I have a bowl full of fresh tomatoes on the counter and a jar of perfectly dried black-eyed peas in the pantry. I have eaten one zucchini (bugs and bacteria consumed the rest of my squashes) and stir fried green beans and gypsy peppers. We have more kale than we can eat and vases of zinnias adorn several rooms in our house. A fall crop of spinach, kale, beets, and arugula is already sprouting and just yesterday I noticed that several of our bell peppers are finally starting to blush red. I have weeded, watered, planted, and harvested in the garden alongside friends and had some hard, stretching conversations about use of the space and tools.

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The garden (and the relationships within it) are still far from perfect, but when I remember the parking lot that covered that space when Maggie first showed me the house less than nine months ago, I can see that life has undoubtedly grown out of that space, with even more restoration to come.

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Autumn Garden

Our garden is mostly neglected these days. Our hose was flattened about a month ago (thankfully just before the drought ended) and school and work consume most of my “free” time. The garden is not completely finished yet, though. The collard greens are still going strong and the other day I saw a few small, green tomatoes, sparking some hope that perhaps we’ll still get some fruit from them now that the ground is moist again and the air cooler.

In the east corner of the garden, the sunflowers and Zinnias wear the telltale tinges of autumn brown, though, a subtle proclamation of the change in seasons. I love it, actually. It has its own kind of beauty, different than the vibrant colors of summer. The crisp brown edges carry a certain peace, the beauty of a season ending at just the right time to make way for the next one.

Growth In Spite of Me

Gardening can be a humbling process. It amazes me how little help my garden actually needs from me to grow. Oh, it certainly helps when I water, when I tug away away weeds and clip off dead leaves, when I loosen the soil so the water can seep in more deeply, when I spoon coffee grounds around my tomato plants. That time and sweat I pour into the garden helps nurture it and make space for it to grow. But even when I don’t put all that effort into caring for it, the garden keeps on growing in spite of me.

This month I neglected the garden for several weeks, watering only sporadically and letting the weeds grow rampant. My attention was mostly limited to a run-by glance on my way out the door to work.

Even so, the garden grew. And grew. And grew some more. Plants doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size. Flowers unfurled, eventually falling away to make space for firm green fruits emerging beneath them. Bright zinnias blossomed. Beans multiplied under the shade of their leaves. Our tomato plants grew so large they began toppling over.

In eight weeks it went from this…

…to this…

Even in the midst of my neglect, we found ourselves with more greens than we could eat. We made salads and pestos and sandwiches and pastas with greens and still gave away bags full to friends.

It reminds me of something that Ben Pasley said when he spoke at the Boiler Room last week, about how a tomato doesn’t need to be told how to be a tomato. It has the DNA of a tomato planted inside it already, contained in that initial tomato seed. It doesn’t need to be told to grow into a tomato. When given the soil, water, and care it needs, it will natural grow into what it was already designed to be. He used the picture of a tomato growing as an analogy for how we grow into our sonship and in God. As believers, filled with the Holy Spirit, we already have the DNA of the Father in us. It is inevitable that we will grow into His likeness, from that seed planted in us (though it helps when we weed and water and fertilize that seed).

This summer, as our garden has grown, blossomed, and burst into fruit despite my neglect, I can see ways that God is drawing Derek and I into our sonship, too, despite our distraction and struggles. God has been reminding me that our continued growth and restoration as His children as inevitable as the tomatoes emerging out in our garden.

Planted

Our little garden is actually planted. And already sprouting thanks to the rain and 80 degree weather this week.

Last Saturday Shiloh borrowed a friend’s truck and hauled in a truckload of compost. I could tell it had arrived before I saw it because our yard smelled like a farm. With the help of her friend, we spread it around the plot, digging it in and shoveling some into a row of old tires we put along the side of the plot (about a week before that I put a request on craigslist asking for old tires and one guy drove thirty miles to bring us fifteen tires for free, only asking for gas money, with several more offering to do the same if we needed more).

After we spread around the compost, we each hauled out our plants and packets of seeds and sat down to decide what to plant where (we had to revise our original plan some because I couldn’t get some seeds and we had more than we thought of others). While we were sorting through the seeds, another neighbor brought out a sunflower seed kit and a salsa seed kit. She said she had intended to plant them inside, but that she decided to give them to us. So we added those to the mix, too.

Somehow we fit nearly everything in our little plot, though somewhat haphazardly. We even left room for sweet potatoes (which come in at the community gardens on Mother’s Day). We planted six of the tomatoes in tires along one side and saved the remaining tires for butternut squash, spaghetti squash, luffa gourds (to make sponges — they looked interesting), and zucchini. Brenda joined us and planted the sunflowers, then went and bought two hoses and a sprinkler for us so we could water everything. We left the garden, full of hidden seeds, wondering what would actually grow.

The following week I mostly ignored the garden as I wrote a whole stack of final papers (one more to go…), consoling myself with the fact that it rained at some point everyday.

When I finally took some time to look at the garden on Friday, I found that something (rabbits?) had eaten every single leaf off of three of our pepper plants (the three mini sweet pepper plants) and nibbled a bit on a few of the other peppers and tomatoes. Both the peppers and tomatoes were dropping a bit, even though Shiloh had just watered them, and the leaves on the tomato plants were starting to turn yellow in some places. Anyone have any insight to what causes that? My only guess is that they don’t like our soil, with it’s combination of clay and compost (which appeared to be comprised mostly of cattle manure and wood chips).

While the peppers and tomatoes look a little tentative still, several other things are springing up. Friday night I found lettuce, spinach, chard, collards, zinnias, and beans all sprouting. By Saturday morning those were joined by sunflowers and okra and the beans had tripled in size.

 

So now I plant to research tomatoes and soil and see what I can do to help them. After I write this last paper, of course…

The Best Laid Plans

Today I met with our neighbor Shiloh and her young daughter to plan our garden. Shiloh brought an armful of seed packets and I printed out a grid of our garden. Together we made a list of everything we wanted to plant.

We decided to try the block gardening method (also known as compact or square-foot gardening). Growing up, we always planted in rows. After doing some research, though, it looks like block (or compact) gardening sounds like the best option for maximizing a small garden space so we’re going to give that a try. We divided our (approximately) 10’x10′ garden into four 4’x4′ plots with walkways between them and put different vegetables in each square foot of garden space, depending on how much space that type of vegetable takes. We planned tomatoes, okra, and zinnias for the north/south sides of the gardens so they won’t shade the rest of the plants and gave the zucchini and sweet potatoes lots of room to spread out. We’ll probably add some pots of herbs, too, that can be moved around.

As of right now, our list of things to plant includes:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers (both sweet and hot)
  • Spinach
  • Beets
  • Zucchini
  • Lettuce
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Bush Beans
  • Onions
  • Okra
  • Greens
  • Cilantro
  • Zinnias

The only things we couldn’t fit were sunflowers and butternut squash. I may still see if I can find a creative way to plant the butternut squash. In late summer we should be able to replace some of the earlier plants with some more cool weather plants (we missed the planting window for some of the spring crops).

Shiloh has some seeds already (include some that she’s started inside). Thursday the Kansas City Community Gardens starts selling the warm weather plants, so I plan on going to pick up some of those, plus whatever other seeds we need (I get ten free packets). Shiloh is going to see if her friend will go pick up a truckload of compost for us from Missouri Organic, too. We may even be able to start planting a few things tomorrow.

This garden is really happening!

Tilled

Do you know what that is?

Yes, it’s dirt. But more importantly, it’s tilled dirt. Tilled dirt in our garden. Finally.

I spent the past month waiting for one thing after another to happen before the plot would be ready to plant. First I waited for the community gardens to call to set up a time to till (I was told their waiting list was pretty long and some people had signed up way back in January). Then, because it rained a lot while I waited, I waited for the maintenance guy to come mow the grass. But he didn’t mow it short enough, so then I waited to find a weed eater I could borrow to cut the grass short enough so it could be tilled (in the meantime, the grass grew again).

Finally on Tuesday, I borrowed a weed eater from one of my coworkers. As soon as I got I home, I spent the last light of dusk chopping down weeds and grass. I cut a space as big as I could while the battery lasted. After I finished, I took my garage sale shovel and tried to turn some of the dirt to see what it looked like. The grass roots resisted the shovel, though, and the dirt was hard with clay. I went inside wondering if they could possibly till that ground and whether anything would ever grow in it.

The next day I called the tilling guy on my lunch break. He came that very afternoon while I was at work still. When I came home, our garden plot was waiting, tilled and ready.

So there it is. A bit bumpy still, with a fair amount of clay. But it’s tilled and can be planted. Maybe this weekend even….

Garden Beginnings

When people hear that I have a whole week off of both school AND work, they typically ask, “Are you going anywhere? Do you have plans to do anything fun and exciting?”

The reality, though, was that my spring break plans contained more homework than anything else. Not exactly fun and exciting. But I did have one fairly big, non-homework plan: start our garden.

Since we first came to look at our apartment last summer, I’ve had my eye on the empty plot next to the building. We asked the landlords if they would be open to us planting a garden there and they responded that as long as we gave them some vegetables, we could do whatever we wanted. So I stared out the window at the open space, envisioning raised beds made out of recycled materials, tended by enthusiastic neighbors.

As February slipped into March, though, and spring edged closer, I realized that if I was going to make the leap from dreaming about a garden to actually starting one, my plans needed to get quite a bit more concrete.

But the space is actually pretty large and the more I looked at it, the more daunting it felt. It looks like there used to be a building there at some point so the space is littered with small stones (I suspect that it may need some compost and TLC to grow things). And dog poop from the neighbor’s dog, who roams free most days (and no, that’s not the kind of compost I had in mind). I knew that I would need to either clean out the stones and till the ground or build raised beds. And either way I would need to figure out some sort of fencing to keep out the dog.

Finally I decided that I just needed to start somewhere and see what solutions I could figure out. And with school and work taking up most of my time, spring break seemed the most likely time to jump into it. So I made a list of goals for the garden, a list of things that I needed to do, a list of materials I needed, and a list plants I wanted to grow (I’m a list person, remember?).

On Thursday I researched fencing options. At first I was looking at fences made from all sorts of recycled materials: old pallets, bed frames, bicycle parts. I found some neat ideas that I would love to try someday, but eventually concluded that for this year, what I really needed was something simple, temporary, and easy to install (since we are just renting and my building skills are pretty limited indeed). Home depot offers some fairly inexpensive options, like chicken wire attached to simple metal posts. I think I can handle that…

 

On Friday I called the landlord to confirm that it was still okay for us to start a garden (she said absolutely, as long as we gave her some vegetables).

On Sunday I made a flyer inviting our neighbor’s to participate in the garden and posted it by the mailboxes and in the laundry room (I haven’t heard back from anyone, but I’m hopeful that once the garden is visibly started, some people will jump in).

On Tuesday Derek and I went to the Kansas City Community Gardens office and signed up for a membership. Because we qualified as low-income, they said they could come and till the garden for us for just $8. We filled out the appropriate forms and left with an official green membership card and renewed hope that this garden thing would actually happen. Now I’m just waiting for them to call to set up a time to come till.

On Wednesday I snagged a shovel, hoe, and trowel for a few dollars from a garage sale down the street. The metal parts are rusty, but they’re still sturdy. And they opened up conversation with the neighbors down the street about the garden (they warned me not to plant watermelons or any of that sweet stuff, because that’s what people like to take around here). That same day, Derek brought home a big ceramic pot from work that I plan to use for herbs.

Now it’s Friday and though the garden is not tilled yet, I feel like I’ve gotten a pretty good start this week. I’ve done enough to assure myself that the garden WILL happen this year at least and the task feels a little more manageable now. This weekend I hope to clear out the rocks from the plot in preparation for tilling and perhaps sketch out a plan of the garden.

Once I finish the homework I put off for most of the week that is….

Garden Goodness

I’ve been missing our garden, so when I saw Maria on Sunday and she told me to come over and pick vegetables, I was delighted. I’ve been babysitting baby Lena (our  youngest housemate) and waiting for a slightly cooler day (which I finally decided just wasn’t coming since the temperature has edged over a hundred degrees most days this week), but I finally made it over to the garden this morning.

It sorely needed weeding, but it was still growing! Some of the vegetables (like the beans and cucumbers) were on their way out, wilted and molding in the dirt, but the butternut squash had exploded all over the garden, the quinoa was starting to form brightly colored orange and red buds just like the seed package had promised, several baby watermelon nestled under the leaves next to the squashes, the peppers were blushing bright red, and the zucchini was still going strong!

I spent a couple hours tugging out weeds, pulling out dead plants and vines, and avoiding spiders (the only thing I don’t like about gardening). These long, thin vines had wound themselves around a lot of the plants, so I had to carefully unwind each one so it wouldn’t damage the plants (if zucchini grow like the Kingdom of God, I’m convinced that these viney weeds grow like sin!)

And then, sweaty but satisfied, I came home, bearing two grocery bags full of homegrown veggies: butternut squash, zucchini, red peppers, hot peppers, onions, beets, baby carrots, and green tomatoes.

They became the highlight of dinner tonight:

Garlicky Baked Butternut Squash

(modified from this recipe)

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp. minced fresh carrot tops (the recipe originally called for parsley)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Combine all ingredients (except for the Parmesan cheese) in a shallow 2 quart baking dish. Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or until the squash is tender. During the last ten minutes or so of the baking time, stir in the parmesan cheese.

(I served this over quinoa, which was delicious. I think this has just become one of my new favorite recipes)

And of course, one of the best parts about cooking any kind of squash, is toasting the seeds:

Oven-Toasted Squash Seeds

Ingredients:

Seeds from 1 squash
Seasoned salt (or other spices) to taste

Directions:

Stir together seeds and seasoned salt on a shallow baking pan (I just use a small cookie sheet). Toast at 375 degrees until lightly browned and crispy, stirring often (watch carefully since they can go from almost done to burnt very quickly).

And for dessert (yes, I actually made dessert!) I found this interesting recipe for green tomatoes. It’s definitely not the traditional fried green tomatoes and makes me want to experiment more with tart green tomatoes:

Green Tomato Crisp

(modified from this recipe)

Ingredients:

7 firm green roma tomatoes (if you use bigger tomatoes, you could use less)
salt and pepper
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup coarse graham cracker crumbs
4 Tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces

Directions:

Thinly slice the tomatoes and layer them in an ungreased baking pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with the brown sugar, then with the cracker crumbs. Top with the butter and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until bubbly and slightly browned on top.

(The pepper added an interesting bite to it, but I liked it. Next time I’d probably just cut down on the sugar a bit, just to make it a little more tart)

Salsa

On Monday Kate from the Boiler Room invited me to help her can salsa with some of the tomatoes from their garden (they have some of the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen!). As we chopped and stirred and waited for water to boil, she shared a bit of her story and I shared a bit of mine, and we talked about gardening, preserving, cooking, sewing, and recycling, among other things. It was encouraging and refreshing.

And at the end of the afternoon, Kate sent me home with homemade salsa and an abundance of fresh vegetables from her garden (tomatoes, collards greens, kale, and basil). I felt so blessed in so many ways!

Here’s the recipe we used (from this site):

Salsa for Canning

Ingredients

8 Ripe tomatoes
1 ½ c. of chopped mild green Anaheim-type peppers
1 c. minced jalapeno pepper
2 ½ c. chopped yellow onions
6 cloves of garlic
2 ½ tsp. cumin
2 Tbsp. of black pepper
2 Tbsp. of canning salt
12 oz. of tomato paste
15 oz. tomato sauce
1/3rd c. white vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
1/4th cup fresh and chopped cilantro

Directions:

Finely grind the tomatoes, peppers, onion, and garlic in a food processor. Pour into a large pot and add the rest of the ingredients, except for the lime juice and cilantro. Mix well. Set over heat and boil for 10 minutes. Keep on stirring while it boils. After boiling, turn off the flame and remove the salsa from heat. Add the lime juice and cilantro. Pour this mixture into pint jars (one batch makes six pints, if I remember correctly). Place the canning lids and rings on the jars again and process the jars in boiling hot water for around 15 minutes (usually, a big aluminum pot is used to place these jars for the hot water bath. The boiling hot water must cover at least 1 inch from the bottom of the jars). Ensure that the leads of the jars are tightly closed. Store the salsa cans in a cool and dry place. Once you open the lid of the jar, you must refrigerate the jar. It is also advisable to use the salsa within one year. Before opening the jar, make sure the lid of the jar is not bulging. After opening, check for foam, mold or some unusual odor. Sometimes, this happens, if the salsa is not cooked properly or something goes wrong with the recipe.