Category Archives: Politics

The Trouble with ‘Civilized’ Living

City living irritates me. There are so many rules, regulations, and restrictions in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘health’. I tend to think a lot of the limitations have much more to do with preserving some notion of civility and with a cultural effort to keep our lives distanced from what nourishes and sustains us.

Prickly pear cactus and corn fill a local city front yard on the 'poor' side of town.

Prickly pear cactus and corn fill a local city front yard on the ‘poor’ side of town.

Why can’t we have a rooster, for instance? Or goats? Why can’t we sell the food we grow at a little stand out by the road, or walk the ten minutes to the local farmers market (where you can buy produce grown several hundred miles away) and sell it there?

Sure, roosters are noisy—as we discovered when we accidentally raised two of them—but so is the neighbor’s incessantly barking dog, and so are the numerous celebrations at the rental party hall down the block (yes, really).

Maybe I should stop complaining and just be grateful there’s no HOA to report to in our neighborhood, no law against front yard food, and that we can indeed keep a few chickens legally. We can keep bees legally here too, in theory, and in practice no one has complained.

The reality is that city rules around food production and animal husbandry vary radically between communities. Several of the larger cities around us (San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley) do allow goats, as do multiple other cities around the US. San Francisco allows roosters, too, but they’re in the minority on that one. Seattle, WA allows urban farmers to sell their produce.

Other towns around us categorically prohibit bees or chickens, or create restrictions that make it logistically impossible for most residents. For example, in our town of mostly small suburban lots, one can keep two goats for every one-acre parcel of land. In other local towns, beehives must be kept a minimum of 200 yards from any dwelling, including that of the beekeeper.

Aside from serving a party-pooper capacity—Really? I can’t pursue every theoretically possible edible adventure in my backyard?!!!—limitations on urban gardeners and farmers restrict the degree to which we can create self-sufficient food systems in cities. If there’s no rooster, there aren’t going to be any chicks, and every new round of birds will require a trip to the feed store or an arrangement with more rural chicken-breeding friends. Likewise, I haven’t heard of any US cities that allow the keeping of unneutered male goats.

In cities where beekeeping is allowed, restricting apiaries to just one or two hives makes bee breeding and selection efforts more challenging. High rates of winter die-offs often result in small-scale backyard beekeepers losing all of their hives in a given season. When these beekeepers resort to purchasing spring bee packages from non-locally adapted and genetically homogenous sources, costs rise, sustainability plummets, and the quality of local bee stock is compromised for everyone—there’s no controlling which drones my queens mate with.

City swarming. Honey bee swarms make a dramatic sight, but the bees are actually quite docile while swarming. With bellies full of food, a queen to keep warm, and a new home to find and democratically agree upon, their focus is far from attacking humans. Urban beekeepers can also take steps to limit colony swarming.

City swarming. Honey bee swarms make a dramatic sight, but the bees are actually quite docile at this time. With bellies full of food, a queen to keep warm, and a new home to find and democratically agree upon, their focus is far from attacking humans. Urban beekeepers can also take steps to limit colony swarming.

Prohibitions on selling food produced in areas zoned residential (this is true almost across the board) restrict a community’s capacity to access truly locally grown food and put the kibosh on urban farmers’ entrepreneurial aspirations.

While many of us resentfully play by the rules, others go underground—keeping bees or poultry on the sly. Members of our beekeepers guild have had lengthy discussions about how best to camouflage beehives, and these same beekeepers fret every spring about the possibility that their colonies will swarm into neighbors’ yards.

If playing by the rules or breaking them doesn’t appeal, there is always the (at least theoretical) option of moving to a more rural clime. But that, too, has its barriers and its insult. First there is the financial cost of relocating, and then the reality that work is often harder to come by and pays less the further one goes from metropolitan areas. And, finally, there’s the fact that we shouldn’t have to give up the place we call home just to be able to grow food and raise animals.

Kelly and I go back and forth about our ideal location. Even as we dream of greener and more wide-open pastures elsewhere, we continue to invest time and heart in this rented city lot. There is something to be said for the diversity of urban communities, as well as for conspicuously growing food in places where lawns and tidy flowerbeds are the standard.

There’s also something to be said for taking an active role in changing city ordinances that impinge on food production and agroecosystem sustainability. A group of our beekeeping friends are working with local city governments to create more informed and bee-friendly ordinances. Maybe one of these days we’ll find the time and internal reserves to go lobby for goats and roosters.

Little Free Library Meets Community Seed Exchange

Over a year ago, I stumbled across my first Little Free Library. It was just a glass-fronted box with a roof in somebody’s front yard, and it was full of books. A sign on the side read, “Take a book, return a book.” I thought it was just one person’s cool idea. Little did I know it’s a worldwide project. As soon as I searched the Internet, found the website, and saw the world map dotted with locations of tiny libraries, I wanted one to nestle into our (future) front yard garden.

I love books, and I love the idea of people in our neighborhood stopping in front of our house to pick a book out of the library, and perhaps return one of their own.

More recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a curbside seed exchange to this vision. Kelly and I are committing ourselves this year to growing only open pollinated seeds and saving them in a more organized and intentional manner for future planting. Why not invite our neighbors to share our seeds and offer their own? Combining a library and seed exchange seems, somehow, very appropriate.

It was only this week that I made a trip to the thrift store with my dad, not really expecting to find the perfect library/seed exchange vessel, but hoping. And there it was: $5 and covered in dirt (I hope it was dirt, anyway!). The cabinet is a little bigger than I’d imagined, and I wobbled home with it protruding from my hatchback. Fortunately, some neighbors took pity on me and helped carry it to the garage.

This is going to be a library in my front yard, I told them. You should come back and check it out. I’m not totally sure they got it, but they smiled at me before retreating across the street.

Now for layers and layers of bright paint. I am trying to be patient, as I wait for paint to dry and ruefully inspect yet more accidental drips that will require yet more layers of paint. Egad.

Picture me at 10:00pm in clogs and Carhartts painting by the light of Kelly's headlamp and the dim overhead garage bulb. That's how crazy and excited I am.

Picture me at 10:00pm in clogs and Carhartts painting by the light of Kelly’s headlamp and the dim overhead garage bulb, and fretting over whether ‘Candy Apple Red’ and ‘Tropical Sky’ really go with ‘Mango Madness’. That’s how crazy and excited I am.

When the new little garden library is ready for its debut, Kelly insists we should distribute announcement flyers to neighbors and invite them to a grand opening reception. I feel slightly foolish, but I do secretly hope that at least some of them will be as delighted as we are by this addition to the neighborhood.

Why Growing Food Matters

In my ongoing love affair with gardening, I occasionally stop to ask myself why I care so much. Why does gardening bring me so much joy, and why do I feel so passionately that it matters?


I know I’m far from alone in being overcome by the seductive power of growing food. Take one look around the Internet, and you turn up blog upon blog about edible gardening, urban farming, and local eating. I’m also sure that each gardener and backyard farmer has his or her own reasons for producing the ultimate in local fruits and veggies.

For some, I think, the motivation is a deliberate, rational desire to cut costs and raise one’s own standards of eating. For others, it is a moral calling—a drive to walk the walk of one’s green living ideals and follow a gentler path on our overburdened planet. Finally, there are those for whom the call of the asparagus bed is more akin to a spiritual journey; both literally and figuratively, gardening can ground us, connect us, make us feel alive and touched by the divine, bountiful world.

Today is Overall Gardener’s second birthday. 2014 is young and still full of possibility. Solstice is behind us, and the light is returning (if only the rains were, too). In the darkness before this year’s planting of seeds, I feel moved to not only reflect more on a topic I already enjoy immensely, but also to push toward a better understanding of why growing and gathering food for ourselves really matters. In doing so, I hope I can better advocate for these most important of human activities. No, really, I’m not just being dramatic; I think it matters that much.

Edible gardening and urban/suburban farming have become awfully fashionable in America. While hunting for a book on home distilling for Kelly before Christmas (egad—how very illegal!), I perused the gardening/home brewing/green living sections at a number of local bookstores. Without exception, they were chock full of books on growing your own food, making the most of small gardening spaces, transforming city lots into productive mini homesteads. These books are filled with sleek pictures of perfectly designed urban farmscapes. They make me all quivery and melty inside.

But while there is undeniably a craze for super-local urban farming and food gardening, it’s difficult to find anyone growing food in their front yard. In effect, as much as we pledge our love for edible gardening and our commitment to personal food production, this is still an activity to be kept discreetly out of sight. Are we afraid someone will steal our blueberries (Kelly is)? Are neighbors’ judgments, local ordinances, and HOA rules dissuading us from getting down and dirty with curbside artichokes? In many cases, unfortunately, yes.

But I think there is also a way in which many American city dwellers just haven’t made that cognitive and cultural leap. Gardening is great. Homegrown melons are fabulous. But lawns and birch triads and privet are comfortable and orderly and proper front yard fare.

Sadly, my front yard faces north. Add to that Kelly’s love of ornamentals, and you have the reason why our front yard is no edible jungle (and why we haven’t been able to agree on what to plant there and have left it barren and sheet mulched for two years now). But there is adequate curbside light for artichokes, a sunny spot I’ve wrangled as a future site for five blueberry bushes, and a 15-gallon ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate waiting patiently by the garage.

I think it’s important to grow food where passing strangers can see. I want my neighbors to know that I grow food proudly, and I want them to think about what they might grow on their own piece of earth—be it a sprawling backyard, or the narrow patch of dirt in front of an apartment. I think food is beautiful. I think gardeners everywhere need to get up their gumption, throw caution aside and do their lawns in. Imagine what your town would look like if this happened. Imagine all the food people could produce if they stopped limiting themselves to backyards. Imagine how much more interesting your neighborhood could be.

Several years ago, I resolved to photograph front yard food gardens. Where are these gardens, I wondered? I spent an afternoon driving through my town and those adjacent to it. It’s upsetting how little food you see in my area when you do this. Citrus is just about the only acceptable front yard crop, apparently. I have to add here that I live in California’s Silicon Valley—an area where wealth, status, and image are paramount for many.

Squinting from behind the wheel, I occasionally spotted a raised bed, or apple tree, or bean teepee, and I would slam on the brakes and start snapping pictures. These gardens didn’t, generally, look like the pictures in those snazzy urban farming books. They were imperfect—weedy, vegetables past their prime, hose left in a tangle. Some yards sported lawns edged with tomatoes and peppers. Some yards were bare dirt with one sprawling squash plant. But they were useful and beautiful in their own right.

Front yard apartment edible garden.

Apartment gardening.

Just when I was beginning to despair at how few people let their gardens loose out front, I crossed over to the ‘poor’ side of town and found a different world. Front yard edibles still weren’t the norm, but they were more common. In a single block I found three cramped front yards overflowing with produce. Here there was corn and prickly pear cactus, squash peeping from behind a chain link fence, apartments with tiny gardens between stairwell and sidewalk.



I won’t pretend to know all the reasons behind these gardeners’ efforts, though it would be tempting to venture that they garden from a combination of necessity and cultural values brought with them from outside the inhibited American gardening mentality.

Why do we garden? Why does it matter to us—especially when so many of us live hectic lives and have access to good fresh produce from grocery stores, farmers markets, CSAs? Urban farming is not just the property of upper-middleclass professionals browsing bookstore shelves and consulting specialty landscape architects. And, lest I sound too judgmental or self-righteous, urban food growing no more belongs solely to the urban poor. Food gathering and cultivation is each of our birthright, and it’s in our blood.

Growing food is nothing new, but our relationship to it is. In 1900, 38% of the American work force farmed. By 1990, only 2.6% of Americans made their living farming. It’s also true that agribusiness has radically altered farming, but the statistics are depressing nonetheless. In a few generations we have literally forgotten or abandoned essential knowledge that our grandparents and great grandparents held dear. Growing up, my grandmother was the fastest prune picker of her seven siblings. I’ve never eaten a prune, let alone grown and picked one. My grandfather was a  nurse, not a nurseryman, but he still knew how to graft fruit trees.

At no point in human history have we lived lives so disconnected from our sources of nourishment. Surely this at least partly explains the visceral delight so many gardeners feel plunging their hands into rich damp loam, hauling a basket of onions in from the cold, spotting the first tiny growth that pushes up after planting seeds.

And maybe we haven’t really forgotten at all. Maybe this is why so many of us still come home from a day at the office, turn off the computer, and head outside to weed the beets.

Overall Gardener Takes to Twitter

Overall Gardener on Twitter??! Ack. I love to garden, and I love to write, but technology and social media are not really my strong suits. So it was with trepidation a year ago that I signed up for a Twitter account for the Overall Gardener blog. I believe I posted one tweet right away, before letting the account sit idly for over a year. What’s Twitter good for, anyway? I’m still not quite sure.

Clearly, I’m not doing a great job of selling you on my brilliant gardening tweets, but if you are brave of heart and not easily bored, stop by. I even figured out how to include a nifty button on the right-hand side of the blog which you can click in order to “follow” my tweets. And better yet, drop me a line and point me in the right direction. Until then, I will be roughing it alone with the handle, @OverallGardener. Yikes, I never thought it would come to this.

In Celebration of Honey

Uncapped honey.

Woohoo! Not only did we (not as narrowly as we had feared) escape a Romney presidency this week, we also are up to our eyeballs in honey.

Well, not quite our eyeballs. I took a break from my grad school preparation madness last weekend so that we could finally extract this year’s honey harvest. We borrowed the guild’s hand-cranked extractor and spent a sticky evening uncapping frames and running them through.

I am pleased to report that, although we do not use plastic foundation in our frames, we only seriously busted two frames. (We had heard that putting foundationless frames or those with wax foundation through an extractor often leads to the wax detaching from the wood frame.)

The end result is 53.25 lbs. of mind-blowingly delicious honey. As a seasoned veteran of two years (ha!), I would say that this year’s honey harvest is tastier than last year’s. Kelly doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but I swear that the honey we harvested last fall had a faint cat pee aftertaste. I don’t know what nectar causes this, but I’ve tasted it in other very local honeys as well.

For the most part, we extracted all the honey into one food-grade bucket, but we decided to hand-extract the honey from one of our host hives. This hive is located in the hills outside town. It produced a darker honey, and you can really taste the dry chaparral plants that grow in that area. We have a beekeeping acquaintance who had her honey tested to see what types of nectar it was made from. I would be fascinated to do this at some point with our honey.

Here are some highlights from the big event.

With jars and uncapping tub at the ready, we set out.

The guild’s extractor hopped around on its plywood base and squeaked loudly, but it did the job.

Kelly begins the uncapping process. Instead of using a heated knife, we used uncapping combs to remove the wax caps.

With the uncapped frames in the extractor, we are ready to crank.

We drained the extractor into a food-grade bucket topped with a filter. We use the most coarse filter, and find it helpful for getting chunks of wax out of the honey.

For the frame of “special” mountain honey, I used a spoon to scoop honey and wax off the wax foundation and into our homemade extractor from last year. The top bucket has holes drilled in it so that the honey (and a fair bit of wax) drains into the bottom bucket.

Here is the whole getup unassembled after washing. You can see the inner basket where the frames rested during extraction.

Leafy Green Potatoes

I love potatoes as much as anyone out there. In fact, Kelly and I have four different varieties awaiting harvest in the garden as I write this. But I’m not sure I’d call potatoes a vegetable in the leafy green, all-you-can-eat, unquestionably healthy sense.

Neither, as it turns out, would Michelle Obama, who has been working to change the nutrition guidelines for school lunches. Predictably enough, the potato industry was none too pleased at proposals last year to limit school lunch servings of the popular starch. As with most political issues these days, science and reason seem to be taking a backseat to lobbyist agendas and profits.

The final version of the new rules for government-subsidized school lunches lifts limitations on potato servings, as well as allowing tomato paste to count as a vegetable serving. Hmmm.

But removing the proposed restrictions from the final draft wasn’t enough for the potato industry. I got a good laugh out of a New York Times quote from Mark Szymanski, a spokesman for the National Potato Council. Said Szymanski, “We still feel like the potato is being downplayed in favor of other vegetables in the new guidelines.” He went on to complain that potatoes are being pegged as “second-class vegetables.”

News like this makes me question whether attempting to effect change in the US is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps it’s time for me to pick up shop and go grow potatoes (and other real vegetables) in Canada.