Grit Blogs > Transitional Traditions

Season in a City Garden

As I mentioned yesterday, I was inspired to keep writing in this blog, but I never fleshed out what I might be writing about. A short list of items includes homesteading, harvesting, unschooling and urban foraging.


One of the sessions I attended at the Mother Earth News Fair talked about all the food she had within reach of her backyard, or on the roads she travels to and from work. Living in Maine, she had an abundant supply of wild blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. But she also found that the plants in her own garden, so often ripped out as weeds, were very edible and sometimes more nutritious than the very veggies she was trying to protect.


In our home, we have already known from our time at Foxwood Farm that pigweed, purslane and lamb's quarter were very delicious and hardy weeds. The kids make a regular snack out of the purslane we kept in our backyard garden this year, pulling it out in between bike rides and the tree swing. They love the idea of foraging for food, even in this small way. Sometimes they'll bring me a stalk or leaf and ask if its food? After careful identification, I give them the thumbs up or down. Since I am so inexperienced in what herbs and plants can be consumed, most of the time it's been a thumbs down.


Well, no more. I endeavor to learn every plant we can eat on our 1/2 acre lot we rent here in Oshkosh. An easy one to start with is our garden. I suppose this can't be considered foraging as we intentionally dug up the ground and planted it with peppers and tomatoes. However, seeing as the spirit of foraging (especially in the city) is to be more self sufficient, the garden is our number one supplier of free* food.


* We paid $30 at the beginning of the season for all the started plants and $15 for some makeshift fencing. 


In June, when I was holed away in an office for 12 hours per day, Andy took on more than most Stay At Home Dads (SAHD) do. He kept the kids wrangled and dug up a garden from sod that hadn't moved in well over a century. At first he did it by hand, spending three hours moving sod from a 6 x 3 foot patch of lawn.


Then my father graciously offered the industrial sized rototiller we had used when we gardened at the farm. There is a setting on the tiller specifically made to uproot grasses and this made the work much more expedient, though still exhausting. 




We decided to make four rows, three feet across and about forty feet long, with three foot stretches of grass in between the rows. This was a good start for the garden. Good for this year. Next year we will likely expand it just as many rows. As it is, the plants we bought completely filled in the rows and we had no room for anything but tomatoes and peppers. We have some large stuffing peppers, but mostly hot banana peppers, which we think was a labeling error on the part of the gardener we bought from, as we never had a need for that many hot peppers. The tomatoes are two varieties; the classic red heirloom Brandywine and a new (for us) long-storing red tomato called Mountain Mist. You can easily tell the two apart both in appearance and flavor. It's nice to have a small variety; we usually have about 15 different tomatoes, but in the end, they all get boiled and canned and look about the same, even the colorful ones. 


Very late in June, shortly after my temp job ended, we planted the tomatoes and peppers in the fresh farm compost my father had driven over in the pickup truck. Since it came from several composting sites on Foxwood Farm, there was a rich variety of nutrients and compost age. A lovely black earth, Andy took the same tiller and worked it in with the hard, poor soil the sod had been hiding. At last, he used a hiller function on the tiller and gave us "raised beds." Not the fancy ones held in by gleaming white pine boards but certainly enough to keep the plants from drowning in case of a flood. (Little did we know in June that this would be a record breaking year of drought for not only Wisconsin, but over half of the United States. Drowning...not really a concern this year.)


In the process of planting, we discovered lots of bones in the compost. Some were small. Some were large. Now before you get the willys, remember that this came from when Andy and I were still on the farm. Do you remember us talking about those sheep we purchased from a Craigslist ad? We had been told they were wormed before we got them, but shortly after their transition to Foxwood Farm, we lost three ewes in as many days. On a farm, all flesh is grass and they went into the newly formed compost pile to aid in fertilizing our fields in the coming years. 


We really didn't think about that very much after we left the farm. We had a nice little reminder of our time as shepherds and thanked the sheep for their contribution (however untimely) to our new garden here in Oshkosh. At the time of their death, could we have ever known how that compost would be used? It served as a simple reminder of how God works things out in much more perfect and complicated ways than we ever could.


After the tomatoes were planted, we headed out west and came home to find an amazing growth spurt in both the tomatoes, but also the weeds. In fact, before we even put our luggage back in the house, Andy and the kids and I spent two hours weeding compulsively, before dusk and hunger pains shooed us indoors.


Above, before mowing the walkways. Below, after. Isn't it beautiful? This of course, before the great tomato take over in about a month! 


After that, we kept the garden watered during July and August to preserve the parched plants. Our lawn was brown, but our garden was gorgeous. As the farm market vendors began to showcase their Early Girls and Cherry Tomatoes, we were beginning to get restless for our own brood to hatch. Plenty of green globes danced about the ever-expanding vines but nothing even hinted at ripeness. We bought our tomatoes from a vendor friend instead and dreamed of the first sun-warmed red fruit that would sit triumphantly on our kitchen counter, proclaiming to anyone who cared, "I'm as local as they get!"


We didn't have to wait long. Early September came and we were getting a steady sprinkle of red maters  hanging out on our counter, waiting for bruschetta or BLTs or a simple slice and rock salt. Then...we didn't look for a few days. We got a heat wave followed by a steady rain for three days.


When the thunder clouds cleared, our own homegrown downpour had only just begun. As Ethan excitedly proclaimed, "It's tomato season everybody!" 


And we set to work. Since we didn't get the tomato plants staked in time, they literally took over the garden and even finding our grassy walkways was a tall order. All the super ripe fruits begin at the bottom, so much of the work is gently and firmly lifting a plant to find it's hidden treasures below. It's exhausting work for a normal person, but with my belly expanding daily and heat tolerance near zero, harvesting became quite the chore.


Thankfully, I had two excellent helpers in Elly and Ethan...and Liam was just amusing to have around as he eagerly picked all the tiny green "balls" he could find. I found out that while Elly has an eye for the very ripe ones, Ethan was fearless, burying his small 3 year old body deep in the monstrous tomato plants for the red globes underneath.


Over the course of the month, Ethan has been my best and most eager helper in the garden. As a middle child, it's sometimes hard for him to have a niche in the family. I want him to know that his help has been irreplaceable and of great value to his Mommy and Daddy. 


Once the harvest is in, the time comes for processing. This is where Andy takes over and shines as his personality must find the most efficient and effective ways to can food. Putting eager kids to work never hurts and much of canning is very kid friendly. 


One Sunday about two weeks ago, I had some pressing freelance work that needed to be completed by Monday morning. The tomatoes were just as dire. So beginning right after church, Andy began the long day of processing what we guessed to be 120 lbs of tomatoes. 




It was a long day indeed. Hours after the kids were in bed, he was still boiling water and slicing stems and peeling skins. Hours after was in bed, he was cleaning the kitchen and making sure the last jars sealed. In all, he worked for 14 hours. We are now blessed with 50 quarts of stewed tomatoes and sauce. When I asked Andy if that would supply us for the winter, he laughed and said, "Maybe til Christmas!" 


It's a good thing that when I began harvesting tomatoes again this morning, we got 90 lbs in boxes and I still have 2/3 of the garden to pick.


Our neighbors in our small block think we're nuts. Some even have gardens, but only enough to supply them for the fresh season. An older lady saw us weeding in July and asked if were had planted a truck garden. For those of you who may not know, truck gardeners were the equivalent of the farm market vendors of today; people who planted huge gardens with the intent to truck the produce into the nearby towns and cities to sell. No, we assured her, this was not our intent. We explained that we just liked to make our own food and her eyes brightened immediately. She told us a story of her own mother, canning away in the kitchen and how she had to help put the food by. We promised to share our harvest with her when the time came and she seemed delighted. "Can't beat homegrown tomatoes and how I do love to slice them and eat them fresh!" 




 We love how a garden brings people in a small community together. The rag tag family down the alley comes by often and offers to pull weeds from time to time. The divorced hairdresser across the street checks up on the progress regularly as she has a green thumb for landscaping. The blended family two houses down has a little girl about Elly's age and after a few get-togethers, we gave the mother several tomatoes and hot peppers. Just yesterday her daughter came over with a homemade cake for us. Even our vegetarian landlord (who happens to be our next door neighbor) is a beneficiary of the garden bounty.  


As the canning season winds to a close in the next two weeks (our first hard frost often lands in the first week of October), we will turn to other means of foraging and winter prep. As I'm actively learning, there's a lot of food out there if only we are willing to work for it. More on this tomorrow!


Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .