Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

Soil woes

Making the best of city garden soil

By
July 22, 2010

Hello. I am back and by no particular demand. If you remember, I was the one with a jones about householding — the wisdom of stewardship, self-reliance, and thrift as set forth by our forefathers and mothers, before industry usurped the laws and logic of the universe.

Back then, I was wondering what householding could possibly mean to this 56-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool boomer girl. How the dickens could I actually go backwards in time without appearing to be a complete Luddite?

Not that I wanted to play country comfort. Heck, I like canning as much as the next gal, but householding isn’t just about canned peaches or stocked pantries — not really. It’s about imagining an entirely new way of seeing yourself in the world.

But anyway, I just couldn’t stop yammering on about it, which is lucky, I suppose, ‘cause it got me a book deal. Now, after a year and half of writing A Householder’s Guide to the Universe, I find myself able to pull away from the computer. Which does not mean I’m done writing, does it? Oh, no. Here we are again, and just in time to enjoy the balmy, freezing, overcast, torched skies of July. What the hey, I say. Which is it? Once again I am back where I started, wondering, How does, or will, my garden grow?

After all, it was my garden, or soil, that started me on this householding thing. Well, my garden, soil, and pears — that old pear tree that wouldn’t stop producing. I guess I finally got the point and decided to take those pears seriously. You know, put up the bounty and all that. But where are the pears this year? There are very few on my tree or my neighbors’ or anyone else’s, as far as I can tell.

I’ve read that the weather was a little cold when the bees wanted to spread their wings. You know the story: no bees, no fruit. And so what’s good for the cherries and berries (blueberries in particular, I hear) was less so for the pears. Which reminds me, once again, who’s the boss — nature!

Not that any of us really needs any reminding, given all the weirdness in the news these days.

Harriet grows alliums in the city.

Yes, I know, we are an industrialized country. We build things, or did. We feed the world, or just barely. We are leaders in the march for democratic principles, or something like that. Frankly, I tend to think we erroneously merged our democratic principles with our capitalist leanings and got this odd Shop-for-America hybrid that has been all but our undoing of late, what with the Wall Street fiasco and the oil spill.

Well, I don’t have to tell you all this. You know it already. But nature and the laws and limitations of the universe, if not logic, are trying to make a point, and we are trying to listen, at least in our gardens and in our commitment to living as though nature mattered.

Still, it’s not all that easy. I know. I have been looking at my soil and trying to figure out how to make it healthy, which is very, very difficult.

There is a saying out there that one grows soil, not vegetables. After four or five years of giving this Victory Garden thing a whirl, I could not agree more. It is one thing to plan a nice garden and have visions of bountiful harvests, and another thing to actually manage either.

Try as I may (and I certainly do try), every year I am faced with some urban version of hardpan, that dry, hard soil that seems determined to make itself known in my garden despite the compost I make and add, the green manure I plant, the mulch I apply, and the chicken poop I beg, borrow, or, well, buy, from whomever will offer me any.

I don’t have chickens yet, which could be my next move given my fascination with their byproduct (not the eggs). Still, given all the serious attention I give to the effort, it’s amazing how much more is required. It can stymie even the most determined back-yard gardener.

Harriet’s garden.

I think about what good tilth actually means, and how I might have it one day. I think, and write about, how it will take at least five years before typical soil gets to looking like the healthy loam good vegetable gardening requires.

Yes, I could get chickens and a goat (if I’m completely obsessed and have the room), and move them around the yard in my own version of rotational grazing. How would that work, I wonder? I could just see it now: Me in my goat-herding costume (something appropriate for work or play) leading old Chèvre through the back yard, hoping she doesn’t eat my heirloom tomatoes or crops (though I use the term loosely) of onions, carrots, or beets.

Even more confounding is the fact that goats — in fact, all animals — like to have friends. Sure, two goats in every garage. I get the idea, but not the practicality. Even I can sense when a concept has transcended all common sense.

So here we are. We are trying like heck to be good stewards, to grow our food, to tend our soil, to care for the bounty, and to harken back to the wisdom of our forefathers and mothers. But we are still in the city, and it will be cats, not goats or chickens, that roam my tiny acres.

Which does not mean I will give up. Nope. It just means I will have to keep on reading, writing, gardening, growing soil, and hoping that I can make sense of life as a householder. And in the process, I hope to find a few others out there who are trying right alongside me. You’re still out there, aren’t you?

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1. by Marilyn Noble on Jul 23, 2010 at 11:02 AM PDT

Glad you’re back!

2. by Kathryn H on Jul 25, 2010 at 11:49 AM PDT

Definitely still out here and I am very glad you are back Harriet--and in terrific voice! Can’t wait to read the book.

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