I had the great pleasure of meeting Amanda when we worked together in the Taproot tent at Mother Earth News Fair earlier this year in Asheville. It was early May, and down there, they were deep in the work of getting the garden planted and already harvesting the early things. With the late season that we had up here in the north, plus my travel, I was a long ways away still from getting our own garden in and I remember hanging on every word of Amanda's. Her garden, it turns out, is as beautiful as I imagined. I'm glad to be sharing it with you here today, along with her wise words and thoughtful reflections on why and how she does it.
Welcome to Amanda's Garden!
. . .
Gardener (your name): Amanda Riley
Garden Location and Zone: Black Mountain, North Carolina (zone 6b/7a)
Garden Size: approximately 1000 square feet of dedicated garden space between the raised beds, rows, and herb/fruit/berry beds, plus a few scattered fruiting trees and vines.
How long have you been gardening? 17 years
Why do you garden?
I garden for so many reasons- but mostly because I know this is how to get the freshest and healthiest food possible for my family, for the free therapy (nothing grounds me and helps shift my perspective when needed quite as quickly as getting my hands in the soil), and because I am beyond hooked and I don't think I actually know how not to garden anymore. At this point, I feel like it is a part of me and that it is in my bones and in my blood, nourishing me in a soul-deep way that few things do. It is the pursuit/hobby that brings me the most joy and fills the most of my hours, from actual time spent in the garden to hours spent daydreaming and flipping through seed catalogs as I sit by the fire in the winter.
How would you describe your garden?
Our garden is a mix of raised vegetable beds of various materials (cinder block, stone, brick, wood, and a hugulkultur bed), rows, and flower, fruit, and herb beds~ I like to think of it as thoughtfully and purposefully arranged but with a good bit of wild thrown in as well. The garden (along with the bee-yard and chicken-yard) takes up nearly all of our backyard, leaving just enough room for our fire pit, bean bag toss, and a small patch to run around in. Truly, the garden IS the backyard, and the backyard IS the garden- throughout the space there are beds and patches dedicated for growing. I figure we may as well use as much space as we can to grow some food and medicine and beauty.
What are your favorite gardening books or resources?
What’s your biggest gardening challenge?
Voles (though our cat Ollie helps a lot in this department), and the dreaded tomato blight we can't get away from here in the Southeast.
What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?
It is so satisfying to see the transition that our yard has made since we started gardening in this space 7 years ago. We've turned our yard from nothing but grass and a dead apple tree into a little (sub)urban homestead oasis of sorts complete with three bee hives, a chicken yard, dozens and dozens of raspberry, blueberry, and blackberry bushes, elderberries, a half dozen fruit trees, a hazelnut tree, herb and flower beds, a small fish pond, and lots of raised vegetable beds. Though we don't have the space to grow all (or even most) of our vegetables for the year (though in the summer we get pretty close), the places where we have been able to do that truly do feel like big accomplishments. There are some things we never really need to purchase, and that feels like something. Garlic, for instance. Honey. Eggs. Greens for at least 3/4 of the year. Green beans. Berries enough for all of our jam needs. When the weather permits we tap neighborhood sugar maples and make more syrup than we need to last us the year. There is such satisfaction in these baby steps towards self-sufficiency.
What do you most love to grow?
Garlic, greens, herbs, berries, and flowers. If I had to get more specific I suppose I'd say garlic, kale, thai basil, raspberries, and larkspur. (Of course the larkspur is blooming as I write this, so I cannot claim my answer isn't swayed by the current state of purple-blue-pink dreaminess). Oh- and also snap peas.
If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?
I have a seven-year-old daughter, Claire, and she spends much time in the garden. When she was 18 months old she started really wanting to actively 'help', and I remember constantly finding unripe cherry tomatoes and blueberries in her sticky, grubby little toddler hands. What a lesson for me! As someone who really loves her garden and was anxiously awaiting the first ripe blueberries from new plants, it wasn't always easy for me to relax into these discoveries of shiny green orbs that were meant to ripen into juicy blueberries and bright, sweet Sungold cherry tomatoes. But, we adapt. And so right around then I started giving her her own tasks and space in the garden where she could dig all she wanted to and generally do as she wished. It wasn't long after that that she was really able to actually help a bit with a good amount of direction and careful explaining. I'd have her help as I made our seed starting mix, or sifted compost, or help to harvest the things that are hardy enough to withstand unrefined toddler harvest techniques....... Nowadays I can send her out to harvest just about anything and she knows all of the flowers and herbs from one another. She tends her fairy garden, which she takes much pride in. She likes to create her own tea blends from the herb and flower beds and I often catch her nibbling on all sorts of things. She has always been a big vegetable eater, and a pretty adventurous eater in general, and I have no doubt that being so active in the growing and harvesting of her own food has had a big impact on that. As a homeschooling family, the garden has also been a big part of our curriculum, and not just with the obvious things such as botany and biology, but also in subtle ways with math, art, ethics, and simple observations on cause and effect, etc. There is just so much to be learned by observing a garden.
Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?
Mix things up! While I generally do have areas dedicated specifically to herbs, flowers or vegetables, I make a point to add at least some flowers and herbs to most vegetable beds, and sometimes sneak a vining squash or melon in with our flower beds. I find this both extremely aesthetically pleasing (as much as I love to garden for practical purposes, I am very much an aesthetic gardener) as well as making more efficient use of gardening space. Home composting is also a big part of our garden plan and system, and one thing we've started doing that works well for us is to pile our fall leaves into the chicken yard for the hens to scratch up and scrounge through all winter, and by spring they have worked it into a very nice leaf mulch that we can add to our compost tumbler and pile and also use it directly as mulch on the garden beds. We like to think this is just one more way that the chickens 'earn their keep'.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?
My favorite way to start the day is with a cup of hot tea and an early walk around the garden after letting the chickens out. This usually involves berries, the smelling of flowers, and the lingering over patches of dappled morning sunlight.
About the Gardener, Amanda:
I live in Western NC with my husband and our 7 year old daughter, whom we homeschool. We've got a fluffy grey cat and the aforementioned garden/bees/chickens, and have very much made a habit of acting as though we have way more land than we do. I teach afterschool art classes, work part time for a local farm, and dabble in writing and photography. I love to read- novels are my television. I love strong black tea with milk and honey, salty ocean air, black and white photographs, the smell of horses, and the lonesome sound of train whistles at night. You can read my ramblings and see glimpses of our days at www.sweetpotatoclaire.blogspot.com
Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your garden with us!
(If you'd like to share your farm or garden with us this season, send me an email for more details. We'd love to visit!)