Grit Blogs >

Big Myrtle and Friends

How ''Get Out of Our Yard!'' Became ''Come Buy Our Herbs!''

MarkAround our house, it is considered a well established fact that the best ideas are all implemented with little forthought during the cognitive stage best known as “half-baked” or “cockamamie”. Just a few short years ago, we were living the quiet lives of apartment-dwelling, opinionated liberal arts baccaulareates, with no dirt under our fingernails, and no real prospect of ever having any. We were hard working slackers, if you can juxtapose those identities; we certainly mastered that art – overworked at our day jobs, underemployed at the home vocation of personal environment building.

However, we have discovered an all important truth since that time, and it is this: one thing tends to lead to another. Which is how we ended up metamorphising from couch potatoes to chicken-raising, herbalist, fruit-growing, future tilapia farmers.

When we finally purchased a house, it was everything we thought we wanted. Only 900 square feet, it sits on a half-acre lot. There are much bigger houses, and there are much bigger lots, but in our price range, there were not many houses or lots which even came close. At the time we moved in, you could barely tell there was a building on the lot, as it was entirely surrounded by thickly overgrown yaupon holly scrub, matted heavily with thorny vines and poison ivy.

We loved the privacy.

At least, we loved it until we realized that people were traipsing through our backyard like it was the Road to Perdition. We could not see the clusters of total strangers standing not more than thirty feet from our back door, and since our little patch of heaven had a long history as a “party hangout” for the row of fraternity and sorrority houses a block away, there was plenty of cultural memory in the community of our back yard being a public stomping ground.

Clearly, privacy would have to play a secondary role to security. Out came the clippers and saws. Down came several stands of yaupon.

We discovered something when we started clearing away the underbrush. Actually, we discovered several somethings. First, we were able for the first time to visualize exactly how much land we had purchased. A half acre is not really a lot of land compared to most homesteads; I spent my childhood summers on my grandparents’ 5 acres, for example, and their place dwarfed what we have now.

However, a half acre seems a whole lot bigger when it is not covered with scrub than it does when it is choking in the stuff. And compared to other lots in the middle of the city, our yard is huge; the typical Texas urban plot is roughly a quarter acre, over two-thirds of which is impermeable cover. By comparison, we are practically a greenbelt.

Second, we realized that many, if not most, of those random vines we saw strangling the tops of the yaupon stands were, in fact, muscadine grapes. We knew wild grapes simply adore the Brazos Valley climate, but we were not fully prepared for the idea that our yard was, in its natural state, a vinyard.

Further, in digging out the roots of the unwanted obstructive trees, we discovered a geological oddity. Our yard is roughly half sandy loam, half clay. And not mixed together, either; picture a swirling marble of various soil textures.

Not having gardened in any serious way since I was a lad tottering after my grandfather, I did not fully appreciate the implications of all these facts at the time, but, as noted, one thing does tend to lead to another.

When the offending brush was removed, we were left with the problem of aesthetics. Yes, we could now see trespassers, and warn them off, but wouldn’t it be better to put up a fence, so they would know not to trespass in the first place? And shouldn’t that fence be furnished with some type of vegetative adornment, particularly since we would only be able to afford to build the most rudimentary of fences?

Being cheapskates at heart, the obvious solution (it seemed to us) would be to take advantage of the natural felicity of our new home. Grapes love our yard, so a grape covered fence it would be. Voila! Problem solved!

However, we then saw an opportunity which, being handed to us out of the blue, we felt we would be greatly amiss to overlook. What do you do with grapes, which we were soon to be harvesting by the basketful? You make juices, jellies, and wines, right? Hmmmm… a bit of quick research led to the realization that muscadine grapes are not really ideal for any of these applications, being relatively low in sugars. Yes, lots of folk swore by the flavor, but wouldn’t we, so refined as we were, be better served by adding some sweeter fruit to the mix?

fruit and berries

So, we planted some plums and blackberries. The planting of plums and blackberries led to an extension of the fence all the way around the property, not just in the back “Highway to Perdition” portion of the yard, but all the way around the front, too. The need for mulch for our fruit crops led to the discovery of a cheap and easy way to dispose of the leaves from our gigantic oak and elm trees. And blackberries required acidic and sandy soil, which we discovered on the opposite side of the yard from where we needed the berries; excavating the soil left a hole which has since become a pond.

the big dig

Gardening for fruit became the perfect pretense for a fish-and-irrigation pond; we soon found ourselves adding a chicken coop (though, truth be told, I came home to find that we had chickens before I knew I needed to build a coop; thereby hangs a whole other tale).

big myrtle

The smell of chicken waste led to the discovery that a three foot deep layer of leaves in the chicken coop eliminates all manure odors, and the wonderful finding that chickens will turn your compost for you if you only give them the chance.

There have been dozens of other marvelous discoveries along the way – corn loves chicken poop; peppers thrive best when they are allowed to flounder their way through an abusively scalding summer with no expectations, only to be pampered and watered fully in the fall; a curry plant is not really very good for culinary purposes, but it is an excellent cat deterrent; everything except for the broccoli needs to be harvested the night before a rare South Texas snow storm; Barred Rock chickens are wonderfully sweet and docile creatures, until you try to integrate a new flock with them, at which point, you have to stand over them with a water hose like some avenging angel; rosemary blooms are beautiful, but they spell doom for the plant because, just like when we had children, once your herbs start reproducing, nothing else in their lives seems to matter to them any more – all this and more has made its way into our new way of looking at things.

We started recording our doings at and among other things noticed that in addition to expanding our project list (which now includes adding more domesticated grapes, as well as adding honey bees, and planting raised-bed olive trees, and pomegranates, and expanding the herb garden, and adding raspberries, and a stand of medicinal herbs like goats rue, and replacing the turf grass with white clover in spring and red clover in fall, and on and on, etc. ad nauseum), our world view has taken on a strange hybrid relaxed-urgency.

We no longer worry about nameless fears or the weight of the world. We are doing something about all the grand issues of the day; it is most likely too late to prevent global warming, for example, but it is just the right time to prepare for it. We are having to save money for a future project to convert to solar electricity, but we have already begun taking advantage of a new solar textile dehydration unit, also known by the quaintly archaic name of “clothesline”. And we are planting trees and crops which will be more and more appropriate for our microclimate as warming takes firmer hold.

We keep ticking off the items on our checklists, and while the lists somehow seem to just get longer, and there is every day even more sweat on our brows, the tension is just melting away. There are those who say a glass is half-empty, and those who say it is half-full. Then there are the residents of Myrtle’s place, who drink the rest of the water and say, “That was delicious! May I have more?”

We have in a fairly short time span gone from a lifestyle in which the question of who was going to make dinner came down to who was going to open the bag of chips, to a lifestyle in which it is not unheard of for dinner to be comprised of foods entirely grown in our own yard, or the yards of our other nutty self-sufficient compatriots. We no longer know what “normal” people use as a standard of comparison – we have an ongoing feud with our dear friends over whether the pinkish brown eggs of Barred Rocks are superior to the blue-green eggs of Ameraucanas (clearly, Rocks rock). We have become incurable garden geeks.

There are undoubtedly others whose self-sufficiency is more advanced than ours, but we defy anyone to demonstrate that they are having more fun with it than we are. We’ll keep you posted on our progress, and also on our equally-if-not-more-informative mistakes, and hopefully entertain you in the process. After all, one thing does tend to lead to another.    

Happy farming!