Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It.
Michael Abelman. 2005.
ISBN 0-8118-4223-1.

July 30th, 2006
Fields of Plenty

The taste of just picked tomatoes draws many people to vegetable gardening. Even apartment dwellers attempt a pot of cherry tomatoes on the balcony. Why? Because anyone who’s eaten a ripe tomato off the vine knows that nothing that passes as a tomato in the supermarket comes close.

Farmer and writer, Michael Abelman feels as passionately about all the food on his table. “Food shouldn’t be just another fuel, grown out of sight by anonymous people, prepared and consumed as quickly as possible as if it were an inconvenience.” he writes in Fields of Plenty. He want us to rethink how we as a society participate in the food system…in America, a system where 2 percent of the people grow food for everyone. He believes that we should know not only where our food comes from, but the who provides our food. He wants us to have a personal relationship with our “family farmer” just like we do with our doctors and teachers. And so he sets out in the middle of summer from his own farm in British Columbia to visit the fields and orchards of independent farmers all over the United States. He introduces us to the people who sell at farmers markets and to big city chefs, who make speciality cheese, and famous ice cream.

These farmers are all alike in their dedication to the quality of their food but that is where their similarities end. One farmer believes the weeds need to grow up with the vegetables in order to create a perfectly balance ecosystem. Another has perfectly tended fields. Gene Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm specializes in potatoes. Hilario Alvarez grows as many different varieties as he can pack into his fields. One family in a poor rural Pembroke Township sees farming as a way to keep the family and the community together. Ken Dunn moves the City Farm from vacant lot to vacant lot in Chicago, supplying dowtown restaurants and poor neighborhoods alike with fresh produce. All the descriptions of the food make you wish you had gone along for the ride. Like any thoughtful host of a celebration of good food Michael Abelman graciously supplies recipes.

Michael Abelman is right in the midst of the organic standards controversy. He does not have any kind words for Whole Foods Market which he sees as the driving organic farming into another brand of agribusiness. Fields of Plenty provides an antidote to corporate anonymity by putting a face behind the food.

Interview with Michael Abelman

I first became acquainted with Michael Abelman through his book On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm in which he describe the survival Fairview Gardens, a small farm almost overcome by suburban sprawl when neighbors decided that the didn’t like living next to the chickens (even though the chickens were there first).

Both these books are fascinating reads.

Mild summers are the anomaly. No matter how much I love to garden, I need to find more plants than can handle Austin’s summer heat and drought on their own.

July 24th, 2006
Beckoning Green

In the spring when the perennials strain for a bit of sunlight to produce a weak flower or two, I consider thinning out the trees. Come the dead of summer and I think about planting more. Oh beautiful trees! How could I be so whimsical? How could I let my fancy be captured by those flashy, seductive flowers? Their joys are fleeting but trees stand strong and true through the years.

I walked around the garden today to note what plants kept their looks in heat and drought without any primping from me. I have a lot of drought-tolerant plants…but just because they can tolerate this heat, doesn’t mean they thrive in it. The crape myrtle, oleander, wisteria, confederate jasmine, ruellia, Tecoma stans, plumbago, duranta, salvia, Turk’s cap, and magnolia all need supplemental water. Even with water, most plants take a droopy siesta between 2PM and 7PM every day the temperatures hover around 100.

Are there really any plants that can go it alone?

The hands down winner is Texas mountain laurel, Sephora secundiflora. This slow-growning small tree has glossy medium bright green leaves that never wilt. It looks fresh and green on the worst summer day. I don’t water it at all; however, in February, if it is a dry spring, it will reward supplemental water by producing much showier flowers.

My Texas persimmon, Diospyros texana, also seems unfazed by July’s dry heat. The tiny leaves have a silvery gray cast, so it doesn’t provide the refreshing sense of cool green that Texas mountain laurel does. It does have an attractive peeling bark similar to crape myrtle.

I’ve never tended the heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, except to thin it. It doesn’t get a drop of water or even a mulching from me. Still it never wilts or browns. I use it as hedge to provide a wind break and a green backdrop for the north border of the garden.

The Mexican plums, Prunus mexicana, are still looking good this year. Usually by the end of summer, the leaves will be brown and bug bitten. They’re ten years old now and each year they get bigger and tougher.

I don’t know how much drought the sago palm, Cycas revoluta can stand because I haven’t put it to the test. It looks tropical but it prefers good drainage to a swamp or it can rot. I keep it in partial shade because it gets sunburnt during the worst part of summer. Its deep glossy green looks very refreshing.

My asparagus fern, Asparagus densiflorus, (neither an asparagus or a fern) continues to remain a bright yellowish green. I have two planted in the ground and one in a pot. I cover them in a freeze. Last year, one froze back to the ground but came back again when temperatures warmed up. (In Austin, the ground doesn’t freeze.)

The varigated Agave americana, a passalong from Valerie is thriving. At this rate, Zanthan will soon be turned into an agave garden. In contrast, both types of yucca and the aloe vera get burned under the intensity of Austin’s July sun.

Thousands and thousands wasted.

July 21st, 2006
Down the Drain

“Turn on the hot water, ” the plumber shouted from the roof as he began snaking out the half-century old sewer lines which have a history of backing up in the kitchen sink whenever the washing machine drains. Leaks in that same section of plumbing necessitated rebuilding the outside wall on that side of the house and gave us the opportunity to move both the electrical and plumbing inside. Now the plumber was almost finished with that day-long job. Problem. The new connection wasn’t draining.

I couldn’t hide my pained expression as thousands of gallons of water poured into the waste water lines. Wasted water. I– the same I who dread walking through the garden this time of year as the plants cry out for some relief and I skulk past them making Sophie’s Choice over which I choose to live–I stood there with the hose for 45 minutes pouring water down the drain.

photo: plumbago
Only plumbago continued to keeps its cool and flower wel. this week.

July 17th, 2006
Week 28: 7/9 – 7/15

Dateline: 2010

First flower: Datura inoxia (7/10); Rivina humilis (7/10); Zephyranthes ‘Labuffarosea’ (7/12).

The Crinum bulbispermum and both ‘New Dawn’ roses have begun reblooming after the heavy rains last week.

Dateline: 2006

When I walk outside to the wilted garden in the morning after a low of 76, I feel certain that had Shakespeare been a Texan he would have written, “Now is the summer of our discontent. Of course, Shakespeare meant something a bit different; that discontent was drawing to an end as does winter. I mean when summer hits Austin, when the grass crunches under foot, when one can feel the sun burning into your skin after 30 seconds, what’s there for a gardener to be content about? I balance my thankfulness that we’ve survived the first week of the dead of summer with my dread of wondering how many more there are to come.

As much as I can’t imagine Cold Climate Gardening, I think gardeners in colder climes have one advantage. In their winter off season, the plants go dormant and the gardeners can curl up with gardening books and plan and dream. In Austin’s summer off season, the plants need extra coddling. Most stop producing fruit and flowers but they still want attention. If I make the mistake of forgetting that summer, too, will pass, then I’m apt to close the door on the garden and give up.

The only star in the garden this week is plumbago. Even the crape myrtles and oleander look pinched and wan. The rose ‘Blush Noisette’ put out a couple of flowers. ‘Madame Joseph Schwartz’ looks like the next victim of rose dieback. I cut half of her all the way down to the rootstock, but it might be too late.
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photo: Zephyanthes grandiflora
2006-07-05. Austin, TX. A rainy week brings out the rainlilies (Zephyranthes grandiflora).

July 8th, 2006
Week 27: 7/2 – 7/8

Dateline: 2010

A week of rain. We hire R. to replace the fence on the south side. I remove all the ivy. They remove the scrub trees growing in the fence line. The pond and the rain barrels are overflowing. Temperatures in the low 90s while the East Coast hits the 100s.
Dateline: 2006
Cloud cover most of the week kept highs in the tolerable low 90s and provided occasional scattered showers. The result was very muggy. However, I’m thankful that it wasn’t as hot as last year given that on Thursday (7/6) we were without electricity the entire day while our service box and meter were being changed over to a new system.

An electrical storm competed with fireworks but didn’t rain them out. We had light rain for a few minutes almost every day this week. It wasn’t the drenching we needed but it was refreshing and it filled up my rain barrels. I didn’t resort to the hosepipe once.

Almost nothing is flowering–only the plumbago, the cleome, the wild ruellia, and the Turk’s cap. None of them make much of a floral impact. At least the garden looks green for the moment. I know that won’t last long.

First flower: Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina’ (7/2).
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photo: Zanthan Gardens
In my garden, I’m not on a mission.

July 8th, 2006
Meandering Down the Garden Path

I’ve been mulling over a question posed by Stuart Robinson at Gardening For Dummies: what are my gardening goals?

I let the question simmer in my mind while I mowed the grass, pulled weeds, and dead-headed the flowers. Although I am a very goal-oriented person in most aspects of my life, when it comes to my garden, this question had me stymied.

I realized that I don’t have any goals for the garden, except the short term goal of surviving another summer in Austin. In fact, survival seems to be foremost in my mind whenever I do anything in the garden. It colors my plant choices, the times of year I buy and plant, and my decisions about having a vegetable garden this year, letting parts of the lawn die, or putting in new beds. The development of my garden is ruled by this one constraint: will it survive? If not, why bother?

A goal implies a finished product, an end-result. It’s probably obvious to anyone visiting my garden that I have no real plan. Conventional wisdom is that you can’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going. In the garden, I’m going nowhere; I’m just meandering down the garden path. That’s fine by me. I’m more interested in process than end-results. Gardening is about the journey, not the destination.

For me garden is a verb rather than a noun. I garden to give myself space to think and because I enjoy observing the rhythm of the seasons. Gardening is a form of meditation. Few people visit my garden; it’s not a showplace or a place for entertaining or even a place to sit back and relax in. I find it impossible to si. a moment in the garden. In fact, the one place I have to sit is so little used that it has disintegrated and been overgrown with flowers.

photo: Malva sylvestris Zebrina
2006-07-05. Austin, TX. French hollyhocks like the rain and cooler temperatures we’ve had the last couple of weeks.

July 5th, 2006
Malva sylvestris ‘Zebrina’

I’m glad that our current nationalism has not become so fervent as to make us rename Malva sylvestrisfreedom hollyhocks”. In the vernacular, they remain French hollyhocks though I wonder what the French call them. Thomas Jefferson grew French hollyhocks and that’s good enough for me.

French hollyhocks are shorter and stouter than other hollyhocks. Mine is only 18 inches tall and has just begun blooming. They are another old-fashioned cottage garden flower in familiar company with the larkspur, sweetpeas, and cleomes. I’m looking forward to seeing if it self-seeds as well as it reputation promises.

Thanks again to Annie in Austin at The Transplantable Rose for this passalong plant. Now that it’s survived our outrageously hot and dry spring enough to settle in and flower, I’m looking forward to seeing it in all its seasons.

garden week 26
2006-06-28. Last week’s rain and this week’s cooler temperatures made it a pleasure to be in the garden. Why can’t summer in Austin always be like this?

July 1st, 2006
Week 26: 6/25 – 7/1

Dateline: 2006
This week I was drawn into the garden still fresh from last week’s rain. The lawn was gloriously green (I had to mow it for the third time in 7 days) and an earthy dampness rose from the mulched beds–as did clouds of mosquitoes. I didn’t have to water, so I was able to spend my time weeding, raking, and pruning. I cleaned up the entire upper bed in the meadow. I scraped up the old semi-decomposed pine bark mulch from the paths to mulch the beds and then put new mulch down on the paths.

garden week 26
2006-06-26. I still call this the upper meadow even though the buffalograss was shaded out long ago and I turned it into a flower bed. During the summer a combination of shade, high temperatures and low rainfall means there aren’t many flowers either!

Some people might complain that the bed looks bare now that the spring wildflowers are gone. But when the heat and humidity return, I dislike the cottage garden style. In the heat of summer the plants and I need room to pant. I consider this my Big Bend style.

Monday (6/26) night the temperature dropped to 60! After this year’s early high temperatures in the 100s, dropping down to a low in the 60s felt like the life-giving breath of fall. Garden and gardener revived.

While temperatures remained cooler, I tried to finish up the path project so that the gravel pile would be out of the way of the construction workers this week. Yes, I know I’ve been working on this since last October but three tons of gravel is a lot of rock for one little girl to shovel.

Speaking of constuction workers, I have two distinct types. The electrician sees only his work. He tramps through flower beds, snaps branches of my roses, gets muck on the new gravel paths, and lets bits of wire and staples fall into the beds where I’ll be digging on my hands and knees. Before he arrived I tried to prepare a path for him. I moved the rain barrel out of his way, cleared out the leaf mulch, and dug a trench for the conduit. In fact, I’ve always designed my foundation plantings so that there is space to get between the plants and the house in order to paint and do other maintenance. I have tried to steel myself for a little destruction in the face of new construction; I remained calm even when he dropped a ladder on a large potted aloe and shattered the pot. Still…

In sharp contrast, my handyman notices everything. He ferreted out the coffee scent on my lawns. He was intrigued with my banana plantation (and was rewarded with a banana plant to take home). He sees how I recycle everything: old fencing to border paths, chippings from my own fallen trees for mulch, the cement chips from the kitchen counter for drainage, even old plumbing fixtures for garden ornaments. He is aware and considerate of his surroundings.
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