From Sea to Shining Sea... and Beyond
January 05, 2018 at 1:58 PM
It has been a long time since I’ve written a post for our Verdura Culinary Gardens site. When I published my last post in September 2013, we had already put into motion some pretty radical changes. We were in the process of selling our local business to Independence Gardens in Portland. Our house was about to go on the market, and we had just bought airline tickets to Annapolis to shop for our next home, a 40’ sailboat.
We decided to close our local installation, maintenance, and garden coaching business so that we could retire. But we kept our brand, website, and all of our intellectual property. This has allowed us to continue to help gardeners not just in Portland, but worldwide, build their own Verdura-style raised bed garden frames and trellises, add drip irrigation systems, and even follow detailed themed garden planting plans.
Life at Sea
By early 2014, we had retired, sold our home and the local business, sold or given away nearly all of our possessions, and were driving across the country with our SUV and an 12’ trailer to move onboard the beautiful old sailboat we had bought. Thus began our next phase, a three year, 11,000 nautical mile journey of full-time cruising up and down the East Coast of the U.S. and the Bahamas.
We had the time of our lives, to say the least (if interested, feel free to read all about it on our sailing blog). But there were a few things we really missed over time: our garden, our German Shepherd Kirby, having reliable sources of great local food, and being part of a larger community. (The liveaboard boating community is indeed tight-knit, but just about everyone is always on the move, making it more difficult to forge deep relationships.)
The best we could do to stay connected to local food was to scope out farmers markets in each town we visited when ashore. We learned where to find local fishermen. And we bought a very small plant container with a water well, immediately dubbed Robert Plant, in which we kept a tiny garden of basil, Italian parsley, and a jalapeño pepper plant. This was how we learned - much to our surprise as Oregonians - that peppers are actually perennials, and can live years if not subjected to freezing temperatures.
Returning to Land
We eventually grew weary of traveling full time, and when we learned our Baltimore son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child - and our first grandchild - we returned to Annapolis, put our sailboat on the market, and spent the summer of 2016 traveling to various East Coast cities and towns in search of our forever home.
For a number of reasons, we had decided against returning to Oregon. The very high cost of living there was a factor, as was having three of our five kids in the DC/Baltimore area. Plus, we’d fallen in love with the history, architecture, and culture of the mid-Atlantic states. So we eventually settled in Staunton, Virginia, a beautiful and historic small city near Charlottesville. After living six months in a loft apartment, we bought a 1955 brick home on 1/3 acre right in town. We spent the next six months extensively renovating the interior and combing area antique stores for furniture.
Meanwhile, we left the yard largely alone and mostly observed what was already there, which is to say, mostly grass. This, we have observed, is not at all uncommon around here. Unlike the West Coast, with its small, fenced yards, irrigated lawns, backyard vegetable gardens and front yard flower beds, most of the East Coast properties we have seen have larger, unfenced yards, mostly undeveloped lawn. And no irrigation systems, as the grass greens up and stays that way in the more humid climate. Vegetable gardens seem to be relatively rare.
The New Garden
Our goals haven’t changed since we were in Oregon: to build our own little sustainable ecosystem, growing as much of our own food as we can. And now that we’re retired with a large back yard, we’ve been able to dream big. We have plans for a large (600 square foot) deck in the back for spring and summer entertaining and dining. Of course, we plan on building a sizable raised bed garden, and have taken the first step toward that goal by sheet mulching a large area in the back yard.
The challenges here (so far) include a sloping site (it’s not steep, but it’s certainly not level), and disappointingly dense, heavy orange clay soil covered with a very scruffy lawn. Our goal this winter was to kill off all that grass, at the same time starting to improve the soil so it will be easier to dig into for the terraced raised beds we will be installing this spring.
So we borrowed a concept from permaculture - sheet mulching or lasagna gardening - to achieve both goals in the 36’ x 50’ area that will be our garden. We mowed the grass very short, watered it well with a hose, and then covered it with an enormous amount of cardboard scavenged from many friends as well as the recycling dumpster behind the local Dunkin’ Donuts. Once two layers of cardboard were down, we rented a trailer, visited the city’s huge leaf mulch pile, and shoveled and then hauled about seven yards of free mulch home to spread on top. This was then topped with two dump truck loads (about 11 yards) of compost delivered by a local company. Then we watered in the whole mess (to encourage the cardboard to start rotting and the compost to stay in place), put some stakes and string around it to keep our dog out, and there it has sat, rotting away, ever since.
The idea is that the cardboard will completely kill off the grass and weeds, roots and all, at the same time providing an ideal home for earthworms and other beneficial critters to help improve the soil. Given that we will be building raised beds, we will still have to move quite a bit of that composted soil around during installation, but we expect it will be worth it to have killed off the grass without chemicals and - hopefully - to have made the soil a little easier to work. Once the beds are built, this composted soil will be mixed with other materials - peat moss or coir, vermiculite or perlite, and worm castings - to create a superior growing medium.
As for design, we’ve had a lot of time - and years of experience designing other gardens - to think about this. Over the years, we installed 273 raised bed frames for 113 clients. Of all of these, the one we most loved was Riverbend, the large garden we built and maintained for Birch Community Services, a Portland food bank. We used the 20 raised beds in that garden to grow thousands of pounds of organic food for BCSI members over a number of years. Even more importantly, it was a place where we could teach members and their kids all about organic vegetable growing while they volunteered their time to work in the garden. It was a beautiful place.
So our thought is to create something similar here, installing 12 raised beds of a similar design. We will use our own Verdura plans for 18” high raised bed frames, as well as copper or steel trellises (we’re still debating this, as we love the look of the copper but it’s gotten very expensive!), and a drip irrigation system for the entire garden.
Some of the beds will be planted with asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, and other perennials. The rest will be contain ongoing plantings of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The entire perimeter of the garden will be planted with in-ground blueberries, perennial herbs and flowers.
Our biggest challenge is, of course, lack of experience growing in this climate, which is quite different from the Pacific Northwest. While we have years of growing under our belts, we anticipate significant differences here. This will require us to try, fail, learn, adapt, and move on. We’ve already encountered some not-so-nice critters, including tomato horn worms and Japanese beetles, neither of which we’d ever seen in Oregon. And of course, all the usual suspects are here as well: snails and slugs, cabbage moths, aphids, deer, rabbits, you name it.
We have our work cut out for us. We plan to document all of it - triumphs, failures, and learnings - and we hope you will follow along. Check back here for more blog posts in the near future, or send us your email address and we can notify you when we write posts. Please also like and follow our Facebook page and our Etsy store to stay up to date If you have gardening friends, please tell them about our website. We hope to inspire other gardeners to try their hand at growing their own food!. And as always, your comments and encouragement are most welcome!