Guest Post: Inspired by a Quarter Acre Farm

I didn’t catch the latest Slow Food Sacramento book club selection, Quarter Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn and Fed my Family for a Year.  But I did enjoy an overview from guest poster and book club participator Maryellen Burns, who also delighted me with an urban gardening story of her own. —

About ten years ago my husband and I transformed part of our front yard into a hundred-square foot vegetable garden.  We consulted a farmer friend, Anton Nirschl, who guided us in everything – from seed selection, to soil preparation, beneficial insects, inter-planting, watering and weeding.  We charted the sun from late summer to February to determine where to place it to maximize the yield, regardless of season.

In March we diligently started heirloom seeds Anton provided from his own garden – coming home from work early every day to make sure they had enough water and enough sunlight to sprout, moving them in and out of doors to strengthen their stamina, per Anton’s instructions.

In April we broke ground – edging the garden with 100 year-old historic bricks from our fallen chimney.  We lovingly prepared the soil and planted our vibrant seedlings — tomatoes, squash, Armenian cucumbers, eggplant, okra, green beans, peas, peppers, garlic, spring onions, basil, sage, oregano, marjoram, chocolate mint and lavender.

Our work paid off and by July 4th we were eating fresh tomatoes with basil, homemade gnocchi with sage and burnt butter, and were overrun with squash, slugs, and salad cucumbers.

We continued our garden through the fall and winter months and took another part of the lawn out to grow watermelon, pumpkins, cantaloupes, and hot chilies.   Year three, we moved to the back driveway and put in corn and grapes, producing more yield than we could handle.   Luckily, we live next to an “old folks home” and could share our bounty with them and the homeless, who frequented our alleyways.

That was then, this is now.   The enthusiasm for fresh tomatoes and basil hasn’t wavered, but it gets harder and harder to kneel on the ground and get back up again.  My brief foray into becoming an escargot producer was long ago abandoned.

I thought of all this when our Slow Food Book Club selected, Spring Warren’s The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year as it’s August selection.  I offered our house to club members — all avid gardeners, cooks and readers — to discuss it and share food inspired by the book or our own gardens, this past Wednesday.

Warren, the award-winning novelist of Turpentine, took on the project out of a desire to grow almost 75% of the food she and her husband and boys consume in a year. She wanted to “take control of her family’s food choices, get her hands dirty, and create a flourishing garden in her not so spacious suburban yard.” She didn’t really now what she was doing but she did it anyway, conducting extensive research into best practices, experimenting her way to self-sufficiency. She grew garden basics and experimented with more esoteric vegetables – sweet potatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and even snails.  And raised chickens, geese, and rabbits, though they are pets and not for eating.

The investment in time was tremendous and involved not only Warren, but her husband and sons, too – plowing the yard under, building raised beds, pruning trees, and spending most of her working time growing and preparing family meals – transforming herself from gardener to farmer and from fiction to non-fiction writer.

Warren is a gifted storyteller.  She approached the writing of Quarter-Acre Farm with tremendous wit and insight — peppering it with historical notes, helpful gardening tips, and witty talk about family. Her advice is seasoned with recipes that range from simple to inspired.

A novelist by nature, she was well positioned to write this book.  She comes from Casper Wyoming, the daughter of Black Hills ranchers.  She’s been a schoolteacher, (evident in the excellent way she organizes the book), a short order cook and a worm seller.  Warren currently resides in Davis, California.

The book fed into my desire to try again next year, as late winter rains contributed to garden yields so small even the snails went hungry.  It inspired our book club to create dishes that almost overshadowed the discussion of the book – pizza with fresh mozzarella, feta, spring onions, tomatoes and basil; orzo salad with fresh vegetables and herbs, caprese salad; Caesar salad; and bruschetta.

Cheesy Tomato Basil Pizza

Garden Fresh Pizza

I cheat buying fresh pizza dough from Trader Joe’s two-thirds of the time and make my own the other.   Homemade is better, but you can’t beat Trader Joe’s for convenience.

Pre-heat the oven to 500° Fahrenheit.   If you have a pizza stone put it into the oven too.

Form the pizza round or rectangle by stretching the dough until it is the desired thickness.

Sprinkle cheese over the top as desired.  I used fresh sliced mozzarella, feta, and parmigiano reggiano.

Slice garden fresh tomatoes over the cheese.  Put pizza into pre-heated oven and bake for about 7 minutes, until the crust and cheese is browned (or more depending on your oven).

While pizza is baking, chiffonade cut freshly picked basil and slice green or spring onions.  As soon as the pizza is out of the oven sprinkle them over the top and they’ll melt into the cheese.  Don’t bake the basil it will darken and the greens will burn. This keeps the pizza topping really fresh.  Cut, serve and enjoy.

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