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Almost Country

Lesson Learned, Moving On--Or Not?

A-photo-of-Colleen-Newquist It's been over a year since my last post—is that possible? Well, the calendar doesn't lie. And neither do I. Most of the time, anyway!  

This much is true: After a serious reality check on my ambitions to farm, I severely scaled back my dreams and decided to try growing a modest garden in our mostly wooded yard. We gardened quite a bit when we lived in our previous house. Mostly flowers and herbs, a few tomato plants, strawberries one year, lettuce another. I could do this.   

I acquired a tiller, identified a 12' X 24' patch that seemed to get the most sun, and got to work amending the soil, starting a compost heap, and planting what seemed most likely to succeed with just four hours of direct sunlight--peas, lettuce, arugula, greens, some herbs. The arugula did OK, and I ate the handful of fresh peas that grew right there in the garden. The lettuces never got beyond the baby leaf stage, and the spinach never showed at all. The rosemary, oregano, and thyme never got much bigger than the plants I put in the ground. The sage withered and died. The one bright spot, which indicates that I must indeed have one bright spot in the garden: the usually sun-loving basil inexplicably flourished, growing tall and bushy. Go figure.

All wasn't a total failure. I learned a few things along the way, including the fact I like cooking and eating fresh produce more than I like tending to it, especially in 100-degee heat, especially now that kneeling and squatting are a lot less comfortable than a decade ago. And that no amount of enthusiasm can make up for lack of sunlight. Lesson learned. Moving on--somewhat literally, this time!

Driving home from an anniversary getaway in Saugatuck, Michigan, we stopped in the tiny town of Three Oaks, Michigan for breakfast. We love Three Oaks. We'd been through a few times before and are smitten with the mix of small-town charm and culture worthy of a big city. We spotted an adorable cottage for sale, with a lush garden of grasses and flowers for a front yard and a metal glider on the front porch, and on a whim, made an offer. We closed a month later. We intend to rent it to vacationers in the summer. In the meantime, we're spending nearly every weekend there, painting and decorating, making new friends, and soaking up small-town life. 

Three Oaks Cottage 

It's the perfect house for us, cozy and comfortable, just right for two. And it's got this huge back yard, with a single apple tree, a single daylily plant, and about 13,000 square feet of sunshine, beckoning like a blank canvass. I really am not fond of digging, bending, stooping, sweating in the heat of summer. I don't like it all. I can be really lazy. I don't like weeding. Who has time to water? Besides, we don't even live there. And yet, and yet...a sun-warmed strawberry plucked fresh from the plant tastes like a burst of joy, a homegrown heirloom tomato is incomparably delicious, and herbs--how I love the ruffling the leaves of oregano, basil, thyme, tarragon, sage, lavendar, lemon balm, rosemary just to breathe in their heady aroma.

Well. Some lessons have to be learned repeatedly before they stick.

We'll see where this goes!

Colleen Newquist embraces an almost-country life from her home in Park Forest, IL--and now in Three Oaks, MI! She is the creator of Sunny Side Up, an illustrated essay in each print edition of Capper's magazine. For more of her writing and drawings, visit

Confessions of a Farm School Drop-Out

AphotoofColleenNewquistToday, I'm supposed to be at class number four of the Central Illinois Farm Beginnings program. But I'm not. I'm at my kitchen table, writing this blog, and feeling surprisingly OK about it.

The combination of a wonderful but demanding promotion that caused work to bleed into my weekends and my dire lack of knowledge about farming led me to the conclusion that I need to step back, reassess, and rethink the order in which I'm doing things. So the farm class is on hold. I'm not really a drop-out, I've just deferred continuing until next year, but "drop-out" made a better headline. 

I have this tendency to run headlong into things. Once my mind is made up, it's like the starting gun has been fired and I GO! This has served me well so far. After three months of dating, my husband and I decided to get married, and we did so just three months later. Next fall, we'll celebrate our 25th anniversary. When I decided it was time to move from our last house, we had our property on the market and sold in about two weeks, and bought a new house just a week after that. So when I decided that it was time to learn more about farming, I didn't hesitate to plunge into a class aimed at starting a farm business. I thought I was ready. But I'm not. Or maybe I was just on the wrong track.

I am ready, however, to get my hands dirty, and that is exactly the place I need to start. I need a season of planting something in my backyard patch of clay, of learning to make and use compost, of building a coop and getting a few hens. I have to start somewhere, and I've recognized that the place to do it is on this suburban plot I call Half-Acre Farm. Now I need to dig in. 

After my first day in class, I wrote about the irony of learning to farm in a windowless classroom—the very environment I'm seeking to escape. I still think there's a place for what I was learning there, I just think I need to earn a place in that classroom first. As a wise farmer friend said to me, "Courses are great fun and very helpful, but learning by jumping in is exhilarating." It's funny—I was thinking that by taking a class in the business of farming, I was jumping in—but maybe I was jumping around the fact that no matter how much I learn about farming, there's only one way to become a farmer, and that's to do it. So, deep breath! Time to plunge in.

The goal now? Chickens. I've been talking about it forever. Time to do. Time to GO! Let's see if this time, I'm on the right track.