Stella’s Food Garden
Small Farmers in the City, A Small Urban Farm
by Tom Sieniewicz of Cambridge, MA
(Who has always dreamed of having a farm big enough for a John Deere.)
Shortly after we moved in to our current house, our then eight-year-old daughter, Stella, looked at the scraggly, empty lawn of her new home and asked, “Could we turn it into a food garden?”
Stella’s food garden provides a little more than 15% of our family’s annual food. Many reading this will laugh, as our largest piece of antique farm equipment is a now 30-year-old rusty and rebuilt pale-blue wheelbarrow. But we look forward to our copy of Small Farmer’s Journal and page through the images of livestock, fields and crops with a curious and magnetic fascination as if it were an old family album, and this amazing feeling of connectedness to all the others who coax things from the earth in America had me pen this letter to all my brother and sister farmers. Surely our own family history, like everyone’s, connects us to the farm trade. Although I spend most of my days yoked to a desk, I have discovered that our food garden is much more than a source of fresh food, a hobby or pastime, and its enriched soil enriches us in uncountable ways.
My beautiful and energetic bride Martha and I had some experience with food gardens, having started two community gardens on empty lots here in Cambridge, a little city that nuzzles up next to Boston. After Stella was born, followed in short order by her two brothers, we had to rein in our civic farming ambitions. But we still intensively tilled our smaller house lot, where some apple and peach trees, 40 tomato plants, cucumbers and orange cosmos thrived. We had always saved seeds, and canned and pickled from our small garden, marveling at the mystery of the harvest while feeling both grateful for and unworthy of the staggering bounty that fall seems to bring every year to us here in New England.
Eventually, we found a nearby house that actually had room for five of us, inside and out. When it came to the garden, this time we wanted to do it right. Inspired by the lay-out of Thomas Jefferson’s 1000 foot vegetable garden, built into a terrace on the flank of Monticello next to the house whose elevation is pressed into every American nickel, we laid out 8 separate plots, 15 x 20 feet each, and imported clean soil, mounding the plots up about 24 inches. Although we live in a modern house for Cambridge, it was built in 1867, the existing soils surrounding the building have been steadily sipping the leached residue from paints and decades of mid-century car exhaust that contained lead. Nearly all urban soils in the United States are contaminated with heavy metals. We had learned tons about this aspect of urban farming from the construction of our community gardens on urban lots around Cambridge.
The garden plan was complete with the addition of a bright blue ceramic bird bath, 6 life-sized plastic crow decoys (scarecrows), a plywood cutout silhouette of our cat (a scaredy-cat), a play house with a porch (more on that later) and border beds for perennials and woody plants, as the raised beds are almost entirely devoted to annuals. My good and wise bride Martha has often remarked that, ‘one of the advantages of marriage is that you get to plant perennials with confidence.’
The food garden’s perennial beds also sport two boxwoods grown from cuttings from George Washington’s home garden at Mount Vernon. Martha and I brought these to New England from Virginia as six-inch sprouts in 1986. These evergreen and fragrant explosions of perfect leaves transplanted with us from our previous house and are now four feet in every dimension. It is sweet to think that it is perfectly possible that George Washington actually rode his horse over the proto-site of our Cambridge food garden in 1775 on his way to Fort Washington three blocks away, the still-standing earthen rampart and gun emplacements which guarded the approaches to Cambridge and Harvard, up the Charles River from the Redcoats, where our revolutionary army and our 18th century revolutionary Martha Washington were then safely housed.
Like most farmers we combine our horticulture with a pinch of mysticism and a large dollop of good luck. On a President’s Day trip with my two young sons to Jefferson’s Monticello, Satchel charmed the head gardener who was planting the same plants in the same location 200 years to the day after Jefferson had noted in his journals. Satchel begged from her a coffee jar of the red Virginia soil from the third President’s gardens — mystical in its color which contrasts so startlingly with the rich black loam we till here in Cambridgeport, in the Charles River delta. Satchel brought this patriotic bright red earth back to Cambridge and mixed tablespoons into our garden beds to conjure and imbue the spirit of this great, complicated and systematic horticulturalist with our food garden. The charmed and committed Monticello head gardener also spirited us one of Monticello’s historic plants, Egyptian walking onions, imported to Virginia and planted by the President in his garden, while making us promise that we not let any of the other thousand or so visitors to the grounds see what we had been able to purloin, imagining that Monticello would be quite a bit lower as a small mountain if our fellow citizens knew it was possible to import soil from the President’s estate to their home gardens in all 50 states. Thomas Jefferson’s onions too have thrived here in Cambridge, tipping over and walking across the beds, they would be an invasive if they were not so edible!
Each year we mulch our food garden with masses of fallen leaves gathered from our lot and from our enthusiastic neighbors’, too, which we simply mound on the top of our beds. Looking out there today with snow fall, they resemble large down comforter beds in a dormitory. Also applied sparingly: some wood ash from the four Victorian fireplaces in our house and (lavishly) 4000 pounds of composted cow manure placed on top of the beds in the spring. Our rural friends would be shocked at how this is delivered in heaps of 40-pound plastic bags each with brightly colored headlines explaining the virtues of their mix. The most exotic here contains lobster shells. We are told that lobsters were once so plentiful in New England that they were simply used as fertilizer. We know that Squanto in 1620 taught the Pilgrims that each mound of corn should also be fertilized with some of the spring run herring or shad, so we too like fish minerals from the sea in the stew that is our soil. Some of the lobster shells are still recognizable as we rake the black gold compost over our beds. We also put some oyster shells on the garden for visual interest in the off season — and to puzzle future archeologists. With so much confidence in our soil, we like to eat some of our vegetables right out of the garden unwashed, carrots and radishes in twilight seasoned with sea-flavored compost and washed only with the evening dew. So yes, we eat dirt.
Some of what is planted in Stella’s food garden, BESIDES lettuce, radishes, spinach, kale, carrots, collard greens, squash, sunflowers, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic (to keep vampires away, we have none, it works), chives, cucumbers, strawberries, rhubarb, mint, millet, corn, arugula, chard, celery, soy beans, herbs and rows of cutting flowers for Martha and also for morale. We are deeply curious about the major crops upon which this country’s agriculture was founded and set out to grow and observe the top-10 closely. What is it like to cultivate the top ten crops that built this country? We live in zone six so some of these plants would need coaxing, with cold frames, advice from books and the internet, fertilizer and grow lights.
By growing them, we have come to know much more about their particular likes and dislikes, and about what actual sights, textures and smells were in the daily lives of a lot of our fellow Americans past and present. We have measured and estimated the scale of bounty that can be had from each of these plants. We know and admire something the necessary amount of effort, water and sunlight, which ones local pests and vermin favor and just how many frost-free days each of these plants long for.
A few stories of the surprising crops we have grown:
FRENCH FRIES (certainly number one of America’s ‘top 10’ crops!)
In an answer to what we should plant in our food garden then six-year-old Satchel said, ‘Let’s plant French fries!’
‘Americans might eat fewer French fries’, it is said, ‘if they had to cook them themselves!’ My logic by extension was that my children might eat fewer French fries if they had to grow them, dig them AND cook them themselves. Monticello’s red soil was at work already — as history explains that it was in fact Thomas Jefferson who first served French fries to Americans!
Done. We would plant and grow French fries. The potato has an especially important connection to us here in Massachusetts as the tragedy of the Irish potato famine sent boat loads of Bostonians here. Irish culture still deeply pervades our city. Flights on Air Lingus to Boston do not even arrive at the international terminal.
Pomme-de-terre in French, apples-of-the-earth — you reach under the plants and noodle or pick the potatoes off the vines just like picking an apple. Dirt under our fingernails, we slice them into a shape that looks like a French fry, we leave the skins on, put them on a cookie sheet with some oil and bake them, turning them once. Throw salt all over, add ketchup (YES — we made that top ten foodstuff once too. After 12 hours’ work it came out exactly the same as Heinz, so now we just buy Heinz).
As it turns out, my children and I now eat more French fries than we used to. Home grown and homemade are of course a million times better and better for you.
The potato patch grows enough potatoes to last until our atomic New England Thanksgiving, where we feed 36 sitting down. A foundation for the feast is a massive cauldron of food-garden mashed potatoes. From June to October, I also make all our dinner guests noodle out their own potatoes. Mature urbanites with thin, expensive Italian shoes and neckties turn childlike and giddy and get dirt under their pristine fingernails, shouting with triumph at the handfuls of warm bounty.
We grow CIGARS
We don’t smoke or chew. But tobacco has played such a large part in our country’s history that I wanted to understand how to cultivate it, I wanted to know what it looked like and how it felt. Tobacco is a plant not often associated with New England now, although it is reputed that the most perfect leaf is produced about 100 miles from Stella’s Food Garden in the Connecticut River Valley. These Connecticut leaves are used as the outer layers of some of the finest cigars in the world. I found seed on-line from a website that was wonderfully libertarian in character: ‘Avoid taxes and grow your own’. Impossibly small seeds arrived in a business envelope, a brown powder. Included with the tobacco seed was advice that the plant did not like to be taxed nor did it like to be transplanted! I have faith in seeds, but I confess, I started these seeds without much hope, on top of wet starter mix under my grow lights. I stood back and felt foolish but also a little independent and free.
Libertarian seed works! Soon I had nursed pots and pots of baby Marlboros. But I had a problem. Here in Cambridge, my good children had been raised to eschew tobacco. I explained that, ‘the leaves were so toxic that they would be made into a nicotine tea that I would spray on the food garden to kill insect pests and that I would not smoke.’ (I am told tobacco tea is so toxic it does indeed kill a range of garden pests. I never had the intention of trying.)
By the end of the garden season I had Christmas-tree-scale plants. Word got out locally and my neighbor Andy brought by a 100-year-old man who had worked the tobacco fields in the Carolinas when he was young. He said he “just wanted to see and be near the plants one more time,” plants he had not seen since the mid 1940’s. He toured the garden on his walker with excitement. He became so energized by my questions about his experience he nearly tipped over. I had never harvested or cured tobacco; he was able to explain the process and answered all my simpleton questions including ‘When do you know it’s ready?’ ‘You know it’s ready as it hangs like gold, and it is GOLD!’
Lacking a tobacco barn to cure the leaves at the 100-plus degrees heat that makes the perfect wilt, I borrowed Stella’s by-then under-utilized playhouse. Though fearing the Cambridge police, school committee or building department might have good reason to object or arrest me, I found that it was the perfect place to make the leaves into gold. With their leathery consistency, they were easy to twist and braid into the sticks of tobacco that once served as currency in our young republic. Very late at night, on Thanksgiving, we smoked it with our New York City Park Avenue cousins in clay pipes on the porch looking out over a finished and sleeping food garden. Tobacco smoke, a smell that was everywhere when I was a child, curling up and fertilizing visions of bounteous new gardens, spurring new optimistic and desperately needed political ideals, all while the Republic and my children slept — so we confidently and freely smoked unnoticed.
PEAS and PEANUTS
Jasper, Stella’s second little brother, said, ‘peanuts.’
OK – Stella’s Food Garden is within walking distance of Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox play and where surely a Mount-Everest-scale pile of peanuts has been shelled and eaten since they first sold baseball tickets for the 1912 season. On cool summer nights, Fenway’s aerial camera, strapped to the Hood Milk blimp, circles right over our garden beds. My children just say ‘drink milk’, every time it goes over, rather than ‘look at the huge lit up and humming blimp circling over our food garden.’ Porch dinner guests puzzle as we pay it so little mind. 22 circles a game, 81 home games, without the playoffs. The glow of the ballpark lights fills the night sky and we can even hear the roar of the crowd in the garden if the wind is right.
Peanut seed looks like peanuts, but don’t eat ‘em! We planted our raw peanuts in a perfect set of rows and within 24 hours the gray and hungry urban squirrels could not believe their good luck and the garden was tilled and robbed completely. I had a few more seeds left so I planted them closer to the house and randomly so that I could foil the Harvard- and MIT-educated urban squirrels’ obvious Cartesian logic. The big problem now was that I could not remember where exactly I had planted all the peanuts, and I had never ever seen a peanut plant. So Jasper kept asking ‘Where are the peanut plants?’ and I didn’t want to tell him that I had been outsmarted by a tree-climbing creature with a brain likely even smaller than half of one of his shelled peanuts. I have many friends who are gardeners and some who are professional landscape architects, so I asked them all, ‘What does a peanut look like?’, or rephrasing, ‘What exactly does a peanut PLANT look like?’ No one in the city knows.
I found one growing. It looks like … a pea plant … tendrils and very similar pattern of leaves. So easy to identify if you know what a PEA plant looks like or, if you are a tree-climbing rodent with a bushy tail.
We have for years planted peas, sowing them in snow or slightly thawed top soil on Saint Patrick’s Day, our wedding anniversary. Our saved pea seeds now over 30 generations old in our garden have been certified by an evolutionary biologist friend as most certainly now naturalized and optimized to our soil and micro-climate. We often have more than we can eat and let many dry on the vine. Shelling these dried peas each summer season by hand to make our seed stock for the following year is one of our August rituals. I grew up in Quebec where dried peas are the basis of a proud province-wide winter dish, pea soup. Understanding if weathering a Quebec winter required us to grow and shell enough peas for the cold and dark months, we can only imagine the urgent care food gardens would have required in 1608 at Quebec City. Written accounts of this settlement, (which is still there, still a living city), indicate that peas were cultivated widely and formed an important part of the economy as trade items. Each settler worked five days for the community and had one day for personal enterprise and advancement and one for religious devotion. Free enterprise in the Americas may have been started by the first pea carefully cultivated and gardened in a small urban farm.
Back to peanuts…
Jasper and I go out in the garden and pretend to be doing something else and make to not look directly at the peanut plants because we know the squirrels might see us looking. We watch our out-of-the-way secret plants with excitement, but pretend to pay them no mind, we treat them a bit like common weeds.
We waited and Jasper kept asking when he was going to eat his peanuts. So we got water pistols, and every time he saw a grey squirrel, he squirted it. That season the Red Sox won, they always do these days. However, WE lost — not to the New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves but to the now fat and healthy college-educated grey squirrels. We never harvested even one peanut. But we learned what peanut plants look like, and Jasper learned that his dad actually could not do everything.
HORSERADISH and the FLAT STONE
Great Grandmother Louise Struzynski Sieniewicz, who escaped Poland in the 1880’s and came to America to have 13 children had a vegetable garden by necessity. Her eldest son, my grandfather, spoke to me about planting horseradish and how, ‘it is vital that you plant a flat stone about 12-14 inches beneath your crop, otherwise the roots will go to China.’ That is how our horseradish patch grows today, founded on that gift of practical knowledge. Not perfect, as my patch still manages to root beyond my carefully planted stone, it seems most of the way to China, as I busted another shovel handle levering up a root, preparing to prepare our jars of horseradish sauce!
Horseradish is a plant that appears to have come from the forest floor of an era when dinosaurs roamed the earth or right out of one of those dioramas at the natural history museum. We grind our fresh root in a food processor whose lid was lifted too quickly the first time I did this and I was temporarily blinded and staggered backwards by the resulting concentrated fresh horseradish gas. My great grandmother must have had the same experience from the transplanted roots of her Eastern European food garden.
I have shared many small cuttings of the roots with other friends who are very-small farmers, and as I sit down to a shared meal with these friends, a root that I passed to them 20 or more years ago flavors our meal. It is suddenly 1890 and Great Grandmother Struzyniski is also with us, with all her 13 children and her husband the first actual boot-straps-American Sieniewicz upon whose shoulders Stella now stands.
HOPS (We grow beer, or part of it.)
We brew and bottle beer at home in the wintertime. Large steaming caldrons, syphons, bubbling fermentation jars and a bottle capping machine mean that there is great joy in the production of beer. There is also obvious joy in drinking it, for those of us old enough. The founders of the Massachusetts Bay colony brought a lot of beer with them on the Mayflower. Everyone drank it, including the children, because, unlike Elizabethan water, it was safe from disease: beer production means that the water is boiled, and the light alcohol content and the hops also serve to preserve it.
With much less than a whole acre to work with, we do have to purchase all our grain. A wonderful byproduct of the family beer production is gobs of steaming boiled and soaked grains which we heap on our snow-covered garden beds after we have finished making the wort. These aromatic and rich brown clods are as close to raw manure that our urban farm sees. We have a deep envy of most SFJ readers’ readily available clods!
We do manage to grow our own hops. Hops not only counter the sweetness of the brew and preserve it, they also give beer its distinctive nose. The vines zoom up in early spring, 1-2 inches a day it seems, their grape-like leaves surprisingly familiar from so many beer advertising graphics. Along with so many other spring explosions, the hop plants jump for joy after the last frost. This beer ingredient wraps and encircles the wooden columns of our porch. Some of Martha’s climbing roses are also embraced and encircled by the hops, like beautiful girls on a dance floor. Roses in my mind are a real party plant when they are in full bloom.
Hops like cool feet, so we shade and mulch the roots. The flowers show tiny and early, and mature into thumb-sized pine-cone shaped hops. We brush by them on the porch daily, leaving our home smelling faintly like a frat house floor on a Sunday morning.
The oils in hop flowers that are the essence of beer are pretty volatile, so we harvest the blooms at the right time and freeze them, so they are ready to use when the garden is sleeping. When it is cool enough for optimum fermentation and we need something to do to cheer us up, we boil our grains and dry hop. We boil some of our hops too, but we also dry hop, which means floating our hops on top of our beer like flowers – bouquets cast on the sea. Special magic summer flowers from our garden lighten up those days just before the seed catalogues pour through our mail slot and flop on the floor.
The detailed knowledge of cultivating collard greens was shared from our old neighbor “OB” — OB for Orlando Brown, Orlando not from ‘As You Like It’ in Shakespeare but because his mother liked the Florida city. OB was a small urban farmer, house painter and transplant from South Carolina. We gardened side by side with him every summer for years, and then he disappeared. We started to worry. But we learned that he had won the lottery, bought a real farm and a double-wide and moved back home!
From collard seeds sown directly into the earth a row of floppy plants emerges. These are then spread out and spaced, the single root uselessly anchoring the seedlings, which go tragically limp and are buffeted by the wind. And then magically they recover and produce light green leathery leaves and are very stout plants — so stout they last in the ground until Christmas.
OB would harvest the leaves with a satisfying snap off the stock and stuff paper shopping bags to give to all his friends. But you could see his thriving crop from the street and he feared pilferage this being a reality of all farmers but especially small urban farmers. OB would spread white wheat flour all over his crop. I asked him how this helped his plants? He explained that ‘the flour appeared to be masses of bug killer, and that this made his crop less appetizing to the small urban farm thieves.’ It worked, the crop of greens looked like something that bugs should stay away from but so should humans!
We learned to love collards from OB, a bounteous plant that is hardy and can be moved. A staple of African American cooking, and no wonder it is not only very easy to grow but also delicious; it magically transforms from light green to deep dark green when cooked. We take the stems out, roll the leaves, slice them crossways into spaghetti like shapes, and cook them in a large frying pan with onions and bacon.
We love weather in New England; it adds a challenge to gardening, especially to growing corn. But we can’t manage to love hurricanes. One year I had a (tiny) corn field, and when we went out in a hurricane to check on it, we saw the corn lying down perfectly, all in the same direction, pointing away from where the wind came from and leaving no doubt about the direction of the hurricane. Usually, our Cambridge rats have to climb the stalks. But that year, the hurricane saved them the trouble. And I vowed to leave corn-growing to places and farmers better suited to its production.
We grow pumpkins and listen to the first fat drops of a summer rainstorm make that distinct splatter as they hit the massive leaves of the running vine. I still gasp when I find the weighty and well-concealed bright orange fruit finally showing itself amongst the shadows.
We train our pumpkins over the 10-foot privet hedge that towers between our garden and the city sidewalk. Pumpkins hang low in the hedge like the biggest balls on the Christmas tree.
Wheat (millet) — We’d be very hungry if we relied on ourselves to grow this food that 100s of millions of people live on. A beautiful plant with feathery tops — but harvest was on the scale of a fraction of an ounce.
Parsnips frost free, makes a beautiful Saint Anne’s lace flower in the following spring, a biannual
Strawberries — These were Satchel’s idea. The home grown “quickstyle” jam is the greatest food I ever tasted.
Cosmos — Martha’s father, Jack, was a serious very-small-farmer too, a lean, jaunty bow-tied WWII vet with a PhD and a do-it-yourself attitude. He grew orange cosmos for morale x 2: First the zany little flowers, and then the star-shaped seed pods are irresistible to pluck and save in a jar. Around 1990, he gave us some. 30 seed generations later, he is still alive in our garden.
And butterfly bush for the butterflies.
We can and pickle, make beer, bake pies and all our bread. Our sons build furniture. We fish and clean fish. And in the winter, we try to write some and teach all the local kids to play hockey. Because all kids should play street hockey, to keep them off the streets!
On the darkest day of the year I sit by the fire to reflect on the power and bounty of Stella’s Food Garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There are small farmers everywhere in America. Small farmers who are deeply aware of the changing rhythms of the seasons. Small farmers everywhere even in one of the densest and oldest cities in America. Small urban farmers who also come face-to-face with wild animals and insects, some helpful, some playful, some menacing. Small American farmers who have no draught horses, except for those we see on the side of our favorite red beer box. American farmers whose largest green and yellow painted farm equipment is an enameled coffee mug, a toy pedal tractor or a child’s pressed tin lunch box.
No, this small farmer’s livelihood is not dependent on the weather, or affected by a plague of insects, or rodents, or the quality and timing of our planting. But our modest experiences humble us to the bravery, audacity and hopefulness of those whose living is made from the earth, its seasons and weather.
Our lives are deeply affected by our small farm. We cannot imagine life without our food garden. It is necessary to our well-being, preventing us from being wholly lost to the attractions and distractions of urban life. It is required so that we focus on what is most important in the tides of the world around us. Required because the food garden allows us to hold tight to a connection with the earth. Required to embrace our fellow citizens and relate to a lot of other Americans whose hopes and struggles utterly depend on all the vagaries of farming.
The food garden reinforces connections to our family’s history too, and our particular storehouse of practical skills, while also showing us that we must acquire new ones to replenish, refresh and pass on. It has us hoeing, an ancient practice, or forging new annual rituals tied to sun, soil and rain. The food garden is an Eden through which we actually uncover the source of life — and delight in the quality and meaning of what we eat.
We are small urban farmers connected to the vast and verdant fields of America by trade but also by shared ritual, hope and the beautiful smell of soil, by our can’t-do-without-’em favorite tools and the embarrassment of riches which is our sometimes harvest.
Stella’s Food Garden, although small, reaches out across America.
This is a short description of what our urban farm has taught us about some of the struggles that all farmers contend with. It is also a record of the unexpected joys that spring from trying to coax things from our good earth.
It is with a seed packet of pride and certainly with a bushel of humility that we share this germinating story of our farm in an old American city and unlikely farming town, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our American lives and some American livelihoods are bound by the hope contained in a seed.
We are sewn together by our history. America is husbanded by the history of our furrowed land and the history of our farming. We are grafted together by the soil and the weather and linked by the great clothesline of all our family members, stretching back in time, most of whom must have been small-farm farmers.
When not in Stella’s Food Garden, I dream up buildings as an architect and Martha writes for the president of MIT and serves as the Institute’s self-appointed chief lore enforcement officer.
I want beehives and have written zoning to allow them in Cambridge. I have also written zoning to allow chickens, but not pigs. Long-ago pigs in Cambridge, not far from the food garden, gave rise to the first zoning codes when someone found a neighbor’s pig in his parlor.