Grow By Bike

Even after two straight weeks of Pedalpalooza “bike fun,” you can still count on Portlanders to hop on the bikes and come out for an early morning ride. Last Sunday, with a group of 30 cyclists, Slow Food Portland hit the streets of Northeast to see what was growing in our neighbor’s backyards. And, if for some reason our hosts’ examples weren’t enough to inspire attendees to head home and dig up their own yards, our route took us past a panoply of home food production. Every block we turned down held an array of curbside plantings, front-lawn bee boxes, and roaming chickens. We clearly chose the right neighborhood for a tour.

We met that morning on upper Killingsworth at the newly-opened Columbia Ecovillage, which may well be the most ambitious co-housing community in the city. The 37 residences cluster together on one edge of a 4-acre former farm. Together, the residents are developing exciting new models for how a community can work together to feed itself. Between the chicken flock, the bee hives, the 24,000 gallon water cisterns, the orchard, and the garden plots, the Ecovillage has big goals for growing food. While most of us don’t have the same space at home (or the help of 30 families!), the residents offered great ideas for how you could apply their model in your own garden.

Dr. Lisa Weasel (who spoke at our February Happy Hour on GMOs), started things off with an explanation of their resident bee hives. She explained that bees are quite easy to raise at home; since they tend to fly diagonally up-and-out of their hives, they don’t require a very large yard. As for equipment, Lisa let us in on the rumor that Zenger farms may be developing a coalition of home beekeepers, who could share honey extractors and other useful tools. Networks like these will make it easier for more people to raise their own food, without concern for their limited knowledge or lack of supplies.

Nearby, another member, Dennis, led us through their well-pollinated “food forest;” the Ecovillage’s nut and fruit orchard. Much like bees, the work of tending fruit trees can seem daunting, but Dennis directed our group to the Portland-based Home Orchard Society, which offers advice and support for creating your own backyard food forest. With the number of trees on the property, the Ecovillage is lucky to have so many helpful residents; when you end up with bushels of fruit, you need to work together to preserve it through drying, freezing, and canning!

From the orchard, we passed under a stately old oak tree to visit the chicken flock. In Portland, city regulations allow for each family to have 3 hens, so with 35 units at Columbia you can imagine the potential flock! So far, they’ve only integrated two small flocks and taken on an additional two-dozen chicks to provide more eggs to supplement the aging hens. In the garden, resident Judith explained their system for sharing plots with their neighbors, which helps to foster even closer friendships. Their crop rows were abundant with produce thanks to a gifted greenhouse that allows them to start seedlings far in advance. Still, as Judith explained, even a backyard gardener can build a simple cold frame and use tools like heating pads and soil moisture meters to ensure a good harvest. As a group, Columbia Ecovillage has relied on a supportive community (both within and outside of their development) to create the gardens we saw. It’s encouraging to see the generosity and collaborative spirit that springs up when people decide to grow their own food.

After we all saddled our bikes, the group rode over to visit Glen Andresen’s beautifully contained garden. If you’ve ever heard of the concept of “square food gardening,” then looking at Glen’s yard might make you think there’s a lot of potential in “square inch gardening.” Glen is a bit of a gardening renaissance man – he sells ultra-local honey at the neighborhood co-op (and from his porch), he hosts a gardening program on local radio station KBOO called The Dirtbag, and he writes a monthly column, the “Ground View,” which is featured in the Arts & Culture section of the progressive Portland Alliance newspaper.

His property, fenced by espaliered pear and apple trees and divided into diagonal beds of peppers, herbs and other veggies, is the product of 22 years of gradual development. But lest you think Glen’s impressive yard is totally out-of-reach for an average home gardener, he was quick to explain that he tries to “let nature do the work.” True, it takes time, but he likes to describe his approach as, “laissez faire and la-zy ass.” Glen picks-and-chooses from gardening techniques to suit his needs: he eschews too much bed rotation, but has also devised his own irrigation system. His gardens are a product of a curious mind that constantly re-evaluates his experiences.  One principle that does remain constant is his axiom of, “If it lives here, it dies here, it stays here,” which is indebted to the permaculture idea that nutrients should be re-invested within their native system.

Still there are some critters that I’m sure Glen would be just as happy didn’t live on his property. He shared his theory with us about an inverse correlation between the number of legs something has and how pesty it is: slugs (0) nibble his greens, people (2 legs) filch his produce, and cats and squirrels (4) uproot and dig at his starts. As unfortunate as these troubles are for Glen, his amusing observation was a good reminder that even the most accomplished gardeners still have their obstacles. You can see (and read about) more of Glen’s garden from this post on a tour he hosted during last year’s Garden Writer’s Association conference.

The advice shared by our last guide, Harriet Fasenfest of Preserve, was resolutely practical and resoundingly political. An admitted novice at many of her gardening tasks, Harriet shared her story of how she came to respect the work of feeding herself as an important vocation. In the sunny backyard where she teaches her food workshops, Harriet spoke at length about the changes our food system has undergone over the last few decades. As she explained it, we’ve lost the skills and knowledge that artisan tradesmen and everyday individuals once had about how to prepare and preserve food. In the pursuit of convenience, we’ve been sold a bill of goods.  Swept up in the rhythm of our frantic and commercial society, Harriet one day considered the large pear tree in her yard and thought to herself, “Why didn’t it bother me to see these fruits going to waste?”

From that moment, she was impelled to regain old household skills and to pick up where the university extension services had left off. With a friend who had a background in home economics, she started Preserve to teach others how to provide for themselves. Over the years, she’s refined her ideals and taken a term from Wendell Berry to describe her pursuit as “householding.” Essentially, Harriet believes that we need to re-invest the housework of gardening, cooking, preserving, and tending with a great sense of worthiness. It isn’t an cop-out to stay at home and provide for a family: it’s hard damn work! Her best advice to gardeners or would-be “householders” was to honestly consider the foods you use and vegetables you like to eat. It doesn’t do any good to can 40 pints of peaches, only to discover you don’t like canned peaches. With this in mind, she’s set her yard up as a “preserving garden,” growing only what she can store or preserve.

As Harriet spoke to our group about growing and preparing your own foods, she reflected on the need for better networks to share and collaborate on this movement. (We wrote about some of the recent upstart groups last month.) To attract a critical mass of people to “householding,” we’ll need to make sure people can rely on one another and swap excess produce, trade baked goods and jams, and share their knowledge. As our group spent the morning cycling from site to site, we saw the beginnings of these local networks. Each of our hosts were familiar with one another; together, they already form a loose collection of individual gardeners and eaters who share a common a common goal: to reconnect with the food we consume. From the cooperative model set forth by Columbia Ecovillage, to Glen Andresen’s inspiring and intricately-arranged space, to the political implications of Harriet Fasenfest’s householding, our tour hosts showed us that Portlanders are planting the seeds of a growing garden revolution.

Thanks for sharing