Life in Stressful Times: Planning a Garden

Last week was better at first. I focused on organizing the kids’ and I into a schedule so that we could all not only get work and school-work done that needed doing, but move through our days meaningfully and with purpose. Not to mention that building in chore-time three times per day helped ensure my 1,400 square foot, 3 bedroom 1 bath home would stay tidy and happy and healthy for all of us. We took a family walk; the kids rode their bikes, laughing and screaming with delight. We played board games together over dinner. We watched our favorite shows. And then it was Wednesday.

It rained the rest of the week, trapping us inside except for brief spurts of outdoor walks. And then came the next round of announcements: first came the announcement that the kids’ school would not be reconvening until May at the earliest and then came the shelter-in-place order. I was not surprised by either announcement; indeed, I’d expected each announcement and agreed with them. But the reality of confronting confinement induced a lot of anxiety. I’m claustrophobic, so the very thought of being forced to stay indoors in 1,400 square feet with three other people, two cats, and two fish, causes my heart rate to increase and a knot to form in my belly. Crowds and feeling trapped with a crowd are one of my worst nightmares. I’m also a person with high-functioning anxiety. I’m extra sensitive to loud noises, which does not play nicely with my almost-10-year-old’s need to burn-off some energy by shouting and whooping. I get anxious in messy environments. I’m also smell sensitive (see two cats and two fish and one bathroom). I think most of us have increased anxiety right now, regardless of any official diagnosis or not, so I’m positive most of you are nodding along. Even if these anxiety-inducing scenarios are not *your* anxiety-inducing scenarios, we all likely have some of these that do not play nicely with quarantine, social distancing, and/or shelter-in-place situations.

I’ve learned to handle my anxiety by controlling things I can control. So, for the past week, I’ve focused a lot of time and energy on the garden plan, which has the very nice bonus effect of also providing us food security and physical, outdoor activity while sheltering in place. It something could feel like a win during these times, it would be the prospect of gardening.

When we bought this house a decade ago, it was really because it was the only house we could afford in the location we wanted. It was not beautiful, and had been vacant for several years. It needed a lot of work. But then we sat on the rotting deck in the backyard, looked at the nearly half-acre all around us, listened to the wind rustle the forest just behind our fence, and knew we had lucked into an amazing lot. It has privacy and seclusion, which are important to me. It has direct trail access to a half-mile loop through forest perforated with evergreens, and then a meadow, which we hike or run year-round. The yard, while encapsulated by trees on all sides, is clear, allowing ample sunshine and space for a sizable garden. It was, in British terminology, the perfect plot of land for a “small holding.”

Neither my husband or I had much gardening experience, but we had dreams and goals. The idea of farming had helped bring us together, and a mutual love of nature had sealed the deal. Added with my experience as an English major and chef, and his experience as both an artist and an engineer, our skills matched neatly into a kind of super-team. We excitedly dug our first garden (by hand, with an old shovel) and planted neat, tidy rows of plants without much soil amendments or much pre-planning whatsoever. And yet, even in the clay soil that got, at best, water-logged in gentle rain, or eroded and damaged in a downpour, we managed that first year to grow food. It was miraculous.

Over the winter I started reading whatever I could get my hands on. And so, come late winter, I carefully ordered some seeds and set about planning a garden with more deliberation. I found this garden planner online and immediately fell in love.

Our first planned garden using the Garden Planner

For the next several years, our garden grew in size and production, and we learned what plants to plant together, what plants to plant where for light, drainage, and temperature, and what plants we liked working with the most when it came to preserving the garden’s bounty. We added our long-anticipated flock of chickens, and learned to handle chicken diseases, manage predators, treat chicken injuries, and maintain a healthy coop. We grew our flock from 5 chickens to 33.

And then came grad school. The chickens had free-ranged on our half-acre, destroying the fruit & herb butterfly garden and partial shade garden I had established along a brick path near our patio. We trimmed our flock by more than half and left the once beautiful, productive land go fallow. It would be reclaimed by weeds over the next three years. Our elaborate and beautiful primary garden became perfunctory, resulting in rows neither one of us had the time or energy to maintain properly, leading to several successive infiltrations of aphids, hornworms, and so.many.bunnies.

I felt like I’d lost a critical piece of myself during these years. I was so happy to be in grad school, fulfilling a dream I thought I’d left behind when we had children. And yet, it was so consuming. I hesitated to even tell people I gardened or canned, because I wasn’t *actively* doing this. I’d spent years making my own soap, baking my own bread, and living off of my own land as much as possible, and yet I felt like a hypocrite and a fraud if someone asked me a question about it and I hazarded an answer.

I’m graduated now, and enjoying the fruits of my dedication by maintaining a dream position at my local university. I’d already been itching to get in the garden again this summer, and now that we’ve all been ordered to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, I can think of no better activity to channel all my anxiety, physical restlessness, and need for a goal than the garden.

So here we are. I’ve mocked-up around 5 different gardens so far this year, as Brian and I go back and forth on how far to reach for certain goals given the uncertainty of this time, while at the same time recognizing that garden goals, while can be an up-front cost, will often pay back that cost for years to come.

On our loftiest morning over coffee, and emboldened by one of our favorite gardening programs that has since been removed from Netflix (note to Netflix: please bring all Monty Don programming back), we mocked-up this:

It’s our regular garden expanded even more to accommodate the 4 blueberry bushes and 2 raspberry bushes I ordered a month ago, plus our chicken coop, and the addition of a new greenhouse on our sunniest south-facing patch of yard with a raised bed garden running between the greenhouse and the garden. It’s beautiful and we love it. Except for the fact that there’s a giant indentation in our yard from an above-ground pool of the previous owners’ that we never leveled; we filled it with sand and put a swing-set there when the kids were little and called it done. We’d need several loads of fill dirt and probably even an excavator to get it level enough to do this, and not only is that expensive, it’s going to require some social contact and time we just don’t want to take.

With Brian’s makerspace being a functional industrial shop (he does custom fabrication products like light fixtures, stained glass mounts, dining tables, and stair rails, as well as more practical “handyman” type stuff) that he shares with several other small businesses in the area, they’ve all banded together to create a grow room. So, at this very minute, we have very happy seedlings under a grow light. Yet, with the shelter-in-place order, even while Brian’s shop is very isolated, we should not and cannot go every day to the shop to water the seedlings, so, we need an alternative. Enter the greenhouse.

We’ve been wanting a greenhouse for years, anyway, to help us expand our growing season, and maybe even over-winter a few otherwise less cold-tolerant crops. Greenhouses, however, when done beautifully as we’d all like to see a greenhouse, are expensive. Our solution is to bend some PVC and secure UVA-rated plastic over it. Instant “greenhouse,” that is inexpensive and, most importantly, FAST to slap together. Maybe next year we’ll make it pretty, but we need a greenhouse ASAP so we can move the seedlings from the shop. It’ll sit in the indentation where the swing set once stood. *insert shrug emoji*

“Greenhouse” sorted, here’s our still expanded, but scaled-down on ambition garden plans:

The primary garden features the same expansion. It needed a new, sturdier fence, anyway, so it’s a good time to bring the west-facing border forward several feet, allowing plenty of room for the new fruit-bearing bushes. A new raised bed for the strawberries should help keep them better maintained, and we’ll cold-frame them over winter to keep them extra safe. After years of saying we needed a rain barrel, we’re also DIY-ing our own out of some barrels Brian has at the shop, and we’ll also use a barrel to make a compost tumbler while we’re at it. We previously had a two-section wood compost pile that needed hand-turning with a pitchfork. This worked nicely for awhile, but has helped attract wildlife to our yard and we often don’t turn it as much as we should.

The raised bed garden runs in the same area as the original fruit & herb butterfly garden. There was a lovely brick path here when we moved in, running from the back patio off our living room/kitchen to a concrete slab where the glass back door opens into the laundry room. It was begging for something to fill it out and make it seem purposeful. The house shades the area closest to it during the hottest parts of the day, making the bottom half ideal for more tender plants, or plants that don’t like a lot of heat, like lettuces, cilantro, peas, and broccoli. The sunnier side will feature beds of herbs and flowers. I’m not sure about the placement of our potato sacks (literal sacks with some slits in the sides to allow harvesting of potatoes without pulling the plant), but they’re portable, so if they aren’t happy I can always move them to a place with more sun.

Sprinkled throughout will be containers we already have, where I’ll tuck the smaller cherry and grape-style tomatoes, a few herbs that don’t play nicely with others and like their own space (ahem, mint), and flowers. Hopefully lots of flowers. I used to rough-up a 5×4 section of this ground and spread wildflower seeds, so I might do that again. We’ll see once I get the beds in place how much room I have. We get quite a few hummingbirds and butterflies, and lots of honeybees every year, so we try to keep them fed. We do not spray for weeds in our grass and quite like the patchwork quilt of “weeds” that I think is pretty and that the bees love. The kids each want to make some fairy gardens, which I’ve always wanted, anyway, so that will be a fun project over Spring Break.

All of this planning has brought me a lot of joy over the past two weeks. It’s helped me remember pieces of myself I set aside to get another goal accomplished. It’s helped me cope in an otherwise uncertain time. It’s helped bring the family together over a common goal as we watch a garden program together of an evening, refine the plans together, and discuss our excitement. There’s something in the plan for everyone–a favorite food, a feature they’re excited about, a new challenge. We may not be RV-ing through 5 national parks and ending in Disneyland this summer, but I find I’m not super mad about that loss. We’re going to gain so much–things we thought we had lost, new memories for the kids who may not fully remember those times the same way as Brian and I, physical exercise, and lots of nutritious, yummy food. This time, while stressful and scary, holds the capacity for a rearranging of life’s priorities in such a way as to help us all make a little more sense of an otherwise hectic, loud, and invasive world. Through the magic of the garden, I find I am hopeful.

Back Home Again

It’s been four years since I left the stay-at-home-parent and full-time-homesteader life to go back to school and pursue a graduate degree in English. In those four years, I’ve gained a degree and a dream job. In those four years we’ve also lost family members, jobs, friends, and possessions, and, I think the most gut-wrenching of all, time. Pursuing a dream isn’t easy. It’s even less so when you hope to hold onto other dreams along with it. We live in a world that favors multi-tasking but diminishes multiplicity–each of us are so often defined to ourselves and others as one thing, even if that one thing switches situationally. We are always one thing first over the others in any context, and when we try to carry-in the remaining pieces and parts of ourselves, it complicates everything. I, for the last four years, have felt myself first split into exhausting buckets: mother, wife, graduate student, boss, teacher, friend, mentor, former chef, (former?) homesteader, former stay-at-home-parent. . .

When I became a stranger to myself, I tried to pour the buckets all back together again. I am always a mother-wife-graduate student-boss-teacher-friend-mentor-former chef-wannabe wishful homesteader-former stay-at-home-parent. I am all of these things at once, in every situation, in every relationship; and that makes everything harder, even while it feels more authentic and therefore easier to maintain. Everything feels like a priority when we mash all of our identities together. Everything feels urgent, important, and pressing. I once described myself as a spinner in a board game, constantly moving between endless turns played between all of my identities, forcing one hand to cook a meal, while the other responded to an email, while one eye read homework, and the other tended a sick child.

One year ago today I was on Spring Break and finishing up my thesis, convinced I was close to the finish line and that soon life would be so much easier once I shoved graduate school off my proverbial board game. I was very wrong. My thesis would drag-on into July (and I’ve subsequently not written much since, which is why I’m re-starting my blog). Also, one year ago today, my husband was still reeling from the sudden and tragic loss of a parent, grieving deeply. My husband’s grief was best described as a journey. Like any process, it’s recursive. One doesn’t neatly move through those 5 stages in a linear fashion and then “graduate” to acceptance. Grief and writing a thesis seem to be totally different things, and yet the underlying process to both was, put simply, a mess.

Sometimes our messes interfered with one another. In this mess, a few days before my birthday, mother’s day, and my graduation ceremony, my husband lost his job. I think it was the grief that did it, and a very non-understanding boss. We were to the imagined finish line; I was about to win the present board game and wave “buh-bye” to one whole bucket of identity, making life simpler, easier, “back to normal,” and it all slipped through our fingers all at once.

Normal. Once upon a time I had relished tending our large garden, our flock of chickens, and our children. I wrote regularly and with great joy on a blog that detailed our lives, punctuated by recipes for from-scratch goodies. Eventually we worked-up to selling our homestead products at a local farmer’s market and nationally-recognized farm store and restaurant. And then we stopped. I opted to return to school, imagining myself earning an income that could alleviate some of the stress and strain on our household. It was a good plan, and despite all of the hardship along the way, I still believe it was the right decision.

But, like so many right decisions, it wasn’t easy. We’ve been through a lot–more that I’m sure I’ll touch-on here in time–but we’ve also gained so very much. My husband is pursuing his dream right now, inspired by my pursuit of mine these past years and ignited in passion by his grief. He’s pushing himself to his limits to own and operate his own makerspace, igniting a movement of making and community-building in our little corner of the world. I’m so proud of him. I’m invested in my job. As the Assistant Director of the writing center at a local public university, every day I get to go in to work is a day I get to connect with people and make a difference. We’re both happy, invested, working-parents, with two active, amazing children, and, as I’m sure most parents can relate, life has been . . . hectic. . . that doesn’t seem to be a strong enough word to use here, but I’m coming up short on synonyms so we’ll go with it.

Which leads me to here. Why am I here, on a blog–again–writing if I’m so busy? Well, in case you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic. My university has canceled all face-to-face classes, so the writing center is fully online. My children’s schools have canceled all face-to-face classes, as well, so they’re home attending fully-online school. It’s like I woke-up one day and everything had re-set to four years ago, except I still get to have a job I love and get paid to do it. I want to recognize our extreme privilege right now in that. So many people right now are losing jobs and income-sources as a result of the pandemic. It isn’t something to be seen as a good thing. It isn’t a blessing. Or a gift of time. It’s awful and is killing people. And even while I recognize my privileged position, I’m still scared.

But, the pandemic did help create the conditions, like a re-set button on a video game, under which I now find time to be quiet for the first time in many years. I’m back home again, in more ways than one. In this homecoming, my fingers are itching to be in the garden, to bake the bread, to cook delicious homemade meals; to reclaim a little piece of myself I’ve missed since I left her four years ago. And even while I hope to return to face-to-face classes, I’m not certain life will ever be exactly as it was before the pandemic ever again. Something in the world is shifting. This shift is why we started homesteading 11 years ago.

So I’m here, writing again, sharing what I’m cooking or doing around the homestead again, not because I feel like an expert, but because I believe in the power of making things and doing things together. We can’t be together, exactly, in this present moment. So I’m here. Maybe you’ll make things along with me. Maybe you’ll make other things and tell me about them. The point is, that by writing, sharing, making, and doing in this space, we can create connection, something I think we all could use a little more of right now.

I’m going to be adding some old posts and recipes from my original blog here as time goes on. I’ll also be adding new posts and recipes. It’s a new-old journey and I’m still me but also different. That’s life. Our family has grown. I hope you’ll join me in the wonder of it all.