Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Garden Tour

In September, we participated in the local Bisbee Bloomer’s garden tour. I admit that I have never attended an event like this before so I really didn’t know what to expect. I worried that my unfinished garden project would pale in comparison to the well-established gardens also included on the tour but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The beauty of my community’s reputation is that we are an eclectic group. I pacified my insecurity by thinking about the opportunity to share my ideas behind the garden project. The tour was going to bring in a varied group of people, all whom have a common interest in gardens but who also might have different ideas about what an ideal use of a garden might mean. The event gave me another forum besides blogging to share my experiment with growing a kitchen garden and a water-wise flower garden in an area that has challenges with climate, soil and insects.

After saying that, I confess that I did push the project to complete more than I intended for the first year. In the months leading up to the date, my partner was amazingly supportive to set aside his own projects to assist me on mine. We dug out two more areas of Bermuda grass and set down fresh straw bales since the original set of straw bales had pretty much composted down to the point of being unrecognizable. I started planting the first of the winter crops for sake of illustration (I still had trouble convincing some people that the soil that the summer vegetables are growing in started off like the new straw bales). The task of re-painting the pergola, interrupted by the monsoon season, was completed. Several more loads of rocks, bricks and wood chips were gathered from our local resources and incorporated in our garden space. We also hired our favorite local stonemason to create a new mailbox. My partner installed a cement border that I jokingly refer to as the China wall to create a barrier between my neighbors creeping Bermuda lawn and our rock garden.

Finally, the time came to put all of the garden tools away in the garage for the first time since I started the project last year. We felt ready for the garden tour. 

Ready for the Garden Tour

Backing up a bit, the word spread about the straw bale kitchen garden. I was contacted by a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson to explain more about it. Since Bisbee is a popular destination for Tucsonans and vice versa, many events are shared between the two communities despite the 90 miles that separate us. To my delight a picture and a quote about my humble straw bale garden experiment was included in the article describing the garden tour event. The curiosity about this relatively novel approach to gardening grew beyond the notice of my immediate neighbors.
Bloomers Garden Tour #10During the event, I fielded many questions about how straw bale gardening works. We discussed the challenges of the insect pests, especially the unusually high number of grasshoppers this year.  I didn’t know why my garden was spared total decimation. I did have plenty of grasshoppers happily feeding on my plants. I stressed the fact that the garden was a product of organic gardening methods and I wouldn’t think of using a pesticide to control them. I spoke about how the plant grouping was designed to practice crop rotation next year, the advantages of polycultures and the philosophy of permaculture. My guests were enthusiastic listeners and not surprisingly some had more insight than I on these topics.

Bloomers Garden Tour #2 I will acknowledge that I felt slightly embarrassed when some of the garden tourists looked to me for expert advise. I admitted that I am just beginning to learn how to put some of these approaches into practice. But my guests would have none of that talk and pointed to the health and the size of my plants. They said that I was doing something right and they wanted in on it.

Bloomers Garden Tour #5 My impression during the garden tour event was that the interest in straw bale vegetable gardening did not solely stem from the seasoned gardeners but also from the people who do not identify themselves as such. I would guess that several of the curious people were intrigue with the idea of producing healthy food to put on their tables. I hope that my project made it appear that it was possible for even the inexperienced gardeners to achieve a level of success in growing their own food at home.
I would like to think that the level of excitement over the kitchen garden is reflected from the broadening public awareness of our food system and how it is not working in our best interest. Is this a sign that there are an ever growing number of people who no longer trust our government to insure food safety? I live in a relatively conservative area. Is the shift toward producing food at home becoming a less radical hippy thing to pursue in suburbia?  The subject of food security in the wake of climate change was brought up more than once in our conversations. Remember, this event took place in September, before the hurricane Sandy wake up call. I feel a food revolution coming on.
On that note, I kept a close watch on California’s proposition 37 to label GMO food during this recent election and I was very disappointed that it failed to pass. I understand that the corporate money flooded into the media to discredit the merits of the proposition but all the same I was hopeful that enough people would see past the food industry’s deliberate obstructive tactics. Oh well, the fight to hold the food industry accountable continues on. Just Label It is now refocusing on securing a Federal mandate and addressing the language in the current draft of the Farm Bill that would strip the authority of federal agencies to regulate GE crops. I’m not discrediting these important actions but in my mind it seems like a disproportionate struggle for such a small step forward within the big picture.

Bloomers Garden Tour #3

Although most of the visitors during the garden tour were excited about the straw bale kitchen garden, I want to point out that the native and water-wise plants outside the fence also played an important role in the success of my experiment. They attracted the pollinators after the sunflowers (leading attractors) faded. One fun instance that I want to share was when a visitor was surprised to recognize a wild plant, the red spiderling (Boerhavia coccinea), included in a formal rock garden setting. She said that it was a weed that grows in the arroyos near her home. Beyond attracting the pollinators, many of the wild plants are edible, medicinal or both; for example, the “so called” weed plantain (Plantago lanceolata) sprouting in my garden.

Bloomers Garden Tour #1

It is a rare occasion that I expose myself to public comment. It did occur to me that placing the kitchen garden in the front yard would attract some attention. The outpouring of positive responses during the progress of my garden project was amazing and provided sustenance for my soul. The crowning moment, as a follow-up for the garden tour event, a picture of my garden was placed directly under the title of the community section in our local newspaper. To be embraced in this way renewed my hope that the trend toward sustainable food systems is spreading beyond the interest of the usual suspects.

Links for further reading:

Forbes: With California Prop Defeated, GMO Labeling Proponents Look to Farm Bill

Praireland Herbs: Plantain

The Bisbee Chamber of Commerce: The Bisbee Bloomers 

Arizona Daily Star: 3 tours may spark ideas for your yard

Sierra Vista Herald: Bisbee Bloomers Garden Tour