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Rural Renaissance Renewing the Quest for the Good Life

Rural Renaissance Renewing the Quest for the Good Life

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Published by Pedro Cabral

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Published by: Pedro Cabral on Jul 17, 2011
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“Is that what you call organic gardening?”asked a neighbor,gazing at our lawn.
Since arriving,entire swaths ofthe tidy grass lawn the former owners had
meticulously mowed are being torn out by us.Our goal was to replace grass with
various native perennial ground covers and other shrubs and bushes,so that we
wouldn't need to spend time pushing a lawnmower around.We wanted to surround
ourselves with a habitat that would readily flourish on its own without the need for
pesticides and fertilizers.But this is a work in progress,and at one point — noticed
by our neighbor — our lawn looked like a wild Wisconsin jungle as we battled the
weeds that tried to overtake the newly planted perennials.
We explained our plans and long-term vision to our neighbor.He didn't mean
harm,he just saw something that from his viewpoint ran wild and unkempt,there-



Seed Savers Exchange

3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101

Telephone: 563-382-5990

Website: www.seedsavers.org

Non-profit organization dedicated to

saving heirloom (handed-down) seeds

from extinction.

Native Seeds Search

526 N. 4th Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85705

Telephone: 520-622-5561

Website: www.nativeseeds.org

Non-profit organizations that seeks to

preserve the crop seeds that connect

Native American cultures to their lands.

Suzanne Ashworth, Seed to Seed: Seed Saving

Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener,Seed

Savers Publications, 2002.

fore organic,something some folks were into nowadays.It may have appeared that
by growing organically we were doing nothing,allowing things to amble and grow
as they may.But this wasn't the case.Rather,we quickly learned that growing organ-
ically takes time.Enriching the soil naturally takes longer than spraying an annual
fertilizer dose.Yet we realized through this experience that using the organic label
in describing ourselves and our growing practices would require commitment,cur-
rent information and an amiable attitude.
Multiple reasons motivate us to grow and eat organically.Health factors play an
overriding role.The more research coming out linking various diseases and condi-
tions to modern toxicity,the greater our incentive to be careful ofwhat we put in
our bodies.Safety to growers is a concern as well,as we see senior retired farmers
around us afflicted with cancers and other ailments possibly caused by years of
chemical spraying in the fields.
Whenever we return home after being away for a couple ofdays during the
growing season,we'll almost immediately head outside to reconnect with the gar-
den to see what's new.We marvel at how quickly that fresh bed ofperpetual
spinach added a few inches.We tie a sweet pea vine back to the trellis and tenderly
touch a yellowing zucchini vine,concerned that it may be an invasion ofthe squash
vine borer.Water the lettuce greens,weed around the raspberries,nibble on a
strawberry.The bee balm show offtheir new blooms,preening in the breeze;the
cherry tomatoes offer Liam their first fruits ofthe harvest,which he readily

Our relationship with the garden is reciprocal,like two old friends connecting
over a pot oftea.Such an intimate,hands-on relationship with our food source lets
us bond out there with the basil and black currants.These garden homecomings
reconfirm our desire to grow organically.Once we learned to see the land as a friend,
how could we treat it any other way than with the utmost respect and care?
Our organic gardening approach parallels our lifestyle philosophy:healthy
plants thrive in healthy soil.Ifthe growing medium is rich in nutrients and provides
the plants a healthy environment,seeds readily germinate,roots form and plants
thrive.Rather than wait for a problem to erupt,such an approach stimulates pre-
ventative practice.We sow clovers in our garden pathways and dormant fields to
increase nitrogen and protect the soil.A fall application ofcompost enriches the
beds with the soil's equivalent ofThanksgiving dinner,a buffet ofnourishment to
replace what we ended up harvesting and eating the previous season.




Large piles of organic material make up our compost heaps. Inside the piles, bacteria,

fungi and insects are at work breaking down layers of kitchen scraps, plants, straw,

chicken manure and weeds. Heat, a by-product of decomposition, helps destroy harm-

ful microorganisms and weed seeds. Temperatures can rise to as high as 160 degrees

Fahrenheit (71°C) within the piles as they age, though our slow compost piles are much

cooler and therefore take longer to produce rich humus. (Fast compost is created by

frequent turning of the pile, producing a rich, crumbly humus in about three months.)

The piles can be occasionally watered, to keep moist. Aeration of the pile can be done

to speed the decomposition process by turning the compost pile with a pitchfork or

potato fork. When added to garden beds, the humus replenishes nutrients removed

when the crops were harvested. Humus also improves soil structure and creates a

spongy texture that helps the soil absorb and hold water efficiently. At Inn Serendipity,

our slow compost is ready every six to eight months.

Making compost is easy. Dry, coarse vegetation, such as twigs and corn stalks,

forms the bottom layer of the compost pile; this is covered with kitchen scraps and

green vegetation, including weeds, grasses, and leaves, and topped with soil and a

source of nitrogen, like chicken manure. These alternating layers are formed until the

pile reaches a height of about three or four feet. The walls of the compost heap can be

constructed by matting loose straw. Bacteria use the nitrogen as they break down the

vegetation into a nutrient-rich humus. Worms also help speed up the process of decom-

position by digesting the organic matter, leaving nutrient-rich castings.

As long as the pile allows air to move through and aid in the decomposition

process, the compost pile will not smell foul. Keeping meat scraps out of the pile also

helps, keeping away scavengers and avoiding possible pathogens. This active, aerobic

decomposition process stands in direct contrast to the infamous —and smelly —

decomposition process that occurs in an outhouse, which is anaerobic. The best com-

post pile is one that doesn't smell!

When spreading the humus, a little compost goes a long way; application should

be done evenly and sparingly. Sifting the humus helps separate particles and any

clumps that exist. Ideally, the humus should be worked into the first couple inches of


Adapted in part from the publication Self-Guided Tour of the Farm, from the Center of Agroecology and
Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz.


This was a new approach for us,the idea offocusing on the soil — the
foundation oflife — rather than troubleshooting plant problems.Conventional
farming and gardening typically blankets entire crops with a clever cure:Spray
the corn with pesticide;dust the flower beds with a fungicide.
We tended to take the same quick fix mentality in other parts ofour life,so we
could appreciate the lure ofthe spray-and-solve-it solution created by advertisers.
Make the crisis ofthe moment go away and move on.
As we used an organic approach to gardening,we witnessed how tomatoes
bloomed and bumblebees buzzed.We started thinking big picture,stepping out of
our day-to-day details,envisioning plans for wind turbines,writing projects and hav-
ing a baby.We started gleaning ways to improve our daily routines:how can we work
in more exercise,green vegetables and down time alone for just the two ofus? Like the
gardens,the more we prioritize nurturing the quality ofour lives,the greater we thrive.


If all else fails, we can always go back to the cubicle.

This was —and still is —a refrain in the back of our minds, a coping technique when

life at the farm teeters on the edge. The well pump dies, real estate taxes increase, a

spring lightning storm surges through and fries the fax machine —again.

There is empowerment in the knowledge that we could go back to the life we once

had, even if we dread the thought. We could clear the cobwebs off the suits and update

our resumes. Returning in some capacity to the corporate routine would yield more reg-

ular paychecks. Just knowing that we could go back to where we've been provides

enough of a sense of a safety net to allow us to keep going, a confidence boost to take

risks in new directions. Of course, a good dose of sarcasm also helps us deal with these

trying times, usually followed by another dose of good humor and a big bowl of ice


A deeper sense of inspiration helping us to weather those tough times comes from

our community of friends and family. They're our lifelines, keeping us connected, encour-

aging us to remain on course to reach our dreams.

We tap into these lifelines in different ways. When Lisa needs a boost, she may vent

through e-mail to girlfriends across the country, knowing she will receive back re-affirm-

ing, butt-kicking, “you go girl” replies. John anticipates the larger-scale events where we

are surrounded by a large group of like-minded people, such as a weekend at a renew-

able energy fair or our July 4th Reunion, a gathering of friends, family and community.


Other lifelines, ways we keep plugging away through tough times, include:

•Keep income project focused.During those times when it feels like we're over-

whelmed with problems and stress, it's sometimes challenging to keep focused on

the bigger picture. We need to remind ourselves that an important slice of this

reality is the need to continue generating income. This means prioritizing and

focusing on current income-generation opportunities to keep the cash flowing,

and not getting caught up in projects and issues that don't need to be handled

right away. Finishing a magazine article on deadline takes priority over making

strawberry pies with the buckets of berries overloading the refrigerator. If they sit

too long, we'll just make wine instead.

•Keep diversified.A continual life theme that magnifies during tough times: the

greater the number of options and ideas we have in the hopper, the more oppor-

tunity and inspiration we have.

•Keep up relationships.We all have times when we need to lean on family and

friends — be it for emotional, financial or physical support. But we've learned that,

like so many other elements of life, such support comes from relationships that are

mutually fostered over time, inviting folks over for supper or dropping by some of

our zucchini surplus is important; when those tough times roll around, we'll have

a foundation of support from which to draw. Living more independently does not

exclude letting in the community of friends and neighbors; in fact, we've found

that greater independence seems to thrive most when interdependence is fos-


•Keep communicating.It's a rough day: the phone keeps ringing, a neighbor's

dog just nabbed a chicken, we're out of coffee, Liam is whiny, and a cloud of dead-

lines are hanging over our heads. Hardly the ideal environment for some blissful

good-life experiences, but we'll regularly connect, perhaps later in the evening or

early the next morning when things quiet down, to regroup. Collaboratively and

cooperatively, we determine what needs to be done and who is responsible for

what, making sure to quickly place an order for more coffee.

Ofcourse,despite healthy environments,there is still day-to-day pest and cri-
sis management in the garden just as there is in our lives.Cucumber beetles attack
the pickle patch and need to be hand-picked offand squished.Liam's new teeth are
breaking in and he's grumpy and in need ofattention.We book a last minute B&B
reservation and quickly need to get the house guest-ready.The back-up furnace
won't start,the refrigerator motor won't stop.In the garden,and in life,we can
weather these daily hurdles more readily when our foundations are strong.

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