How Her Garden Grows
It was 2008 when Spring Warren finally dug in her heels. She’d heard enough scary stories about downer cattle and salmonella-contaminated tomatoes, onions and peppers to know it was time to plot her escape from the mass-market food chain. By July 1, she vowed, 75 percent (by weight) of the food she ate was going to be produced by her own hands on her own land, a residential lot in Davis that’s about a quarter acre. “More and more, you just can’t trust what you’re eating,” she says about her decision.
Though her husband, Louis, and teenage son, Sam, didn’t take the 75 percent pledge with her, by the end of August, the front and back yards of their home had been worked into what is now The Quarter-Acre Farm, and they were casting hungry eyes at her plate. “We had lots of food available and I was learning to cook out of the garden, so that’s when they jumped in,” she says. What did she eat in those early days? “Zucchini,” she says. “Lots of it.” Today, the farm produces the “lion’s share” of what the family eats, and her husband and son both “love the way we eat now.”
Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the vegetable patch, a newbie or an armchair gardener of the laziest kind, Warren’s memoir of that first year, The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year (Seal Press, 2011), is a juicy read. Warren is not a gardener who writes, but a writer who gardens. (Her first book, Turpentine: A Novel, was published in 2007.) Rather than a formulaic do-this-do-that gardening book, she tells you her stories: how she sobbed when her peach tree died because she couldn’t bear to thin the fruit; how she killed, cooked and ate garden snails. (Who knew dead snails still produce slime?) Because she recounts her own experiences and delves into the science behind what she’s observed, she’s created a real page turner. It just may be the book you need to realize the food-producing potential of your own backyard.
Making the Beds
“I don’t call them raised beds anymore; I like to call them contained beds,” Spring Warren says about the planters she builds for flowers, herbs and vegetables. Here’s why: If a bed is “contained,” she knows where to plant, mulch, water and weed. But if the beds are “raised” too high, there’s a risk of cooking the roots, especially when air temperatures soar in the summer. Not good. Initially, Warren used 18-inch-square brick-colored concrete pavers for her planters, but she has since switched to rectangular pavers half that size to create a shallower planting depth. The pavers are an ingenious, and inexpensive, stand-in for wood. “They’re so easy to put in, and I’m always moving beds around. You can just zip through it, and you can make all sorts of different shapes.” Warren keeps them no higher than 4 ½ or 5 inches above ground level.
When it comes to gardening, Spring Warren modestly calls herself a gist-a-cist: “I sort of know the gist of things,” she says. “I generally know what to do.” Here are just a few of her tips for protecting, preserving and using her produce. Check her book and her blog (thequarteracrefarm.com) for more food discoveries and recipes.
• Rather than ready-made supports for tomatoes and eggplants, Warren prefers sturdy livestock fencing. She forms it into cages, anchoring the sides with fence posts. “Tomato plants can get huge and heavy, and this never falls apart,” she says.
• When mulching and composting, Warren uses straw. “Hay is for eating and has lots of seeds,” she says. “You want straw, which is what is left over after threshing wheat.”
• When zucchini or squash leaves show signs of mildew or blight, cut them off. It will keep whatever problem you have from spreading and increase the air circulation around the plant.
• Too much zucchini? Grate it, press with a potato ricer to squeeze out excess water and place the resulting “pucks” on a cookie sheet in the freezer. When frozen, place the pucks into plastic bags where they’ll be handy for sauce or soup in December.
• Potatoes will “audition” for you in the refrigerator. “If you see a potato sprout, it obviously wants to grow,” Warren says. “Give it its chance in the garden.”
• If you grow garlic, don’t do it just for the cloves. The leaves make great eating. “Just slice and dice the leaves until they’re like confetti, then sauté them in olive oil and red pepper and toss into your pasta. It’s so mild yet garlicky. It’s the best thing ever.”
l Plant lots of flowers in your vegetable garden. “With flowers come insects, which eat other insects,” Warren says.
Cure for a Messy Patio
While Spring Warren loved the gnarly old olive tree in her backyard for its shade, she didn’t love the oily mess the fruit made as it plopped onto the patio.
When she spotted folks gathering olives from trees on a well-traveled Davis street, she started looking at her own tree with new eyes. After talking to gleaners and reading about curing methods in a pamphlet she found at the campus bookstore, she decided that salt curing—creating layers of salt and olives—was the ticket.
First she tried layering in cardboard boxes, but the liquid that leached out as the olives cured made mulch out of the box bottoms. Next, she made peg-joined, hinged-top pine boxes but found there was no way to effectively press down the salt layers in the box.
Plastic bags that look a little like burlap worked well, but Warren doesn’t like to use anything plastic anymore, so this year, she switched to fabric shopping bags. She places those in terra cotta saucers to catch the drippings. “The fabric bags work well,” she says. And the olives? “They are so good. This year was a great, great, great olive year. We went to Rome for Christmas, and when I came back . . . it was just after we had that huge storm . . . and there were all these olives on the ground, so I ended up with about 5 pounds.”