This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteaderby Joan Dye Gussow
Joan Dye Gussow is an extraordinarily ordinary woman. She lives in a home not unlike the average home in a neighborhood that is, more or less, typically suburban. What sets her apart from the rest of us is that she thinks more deeply--and in more eloquent detail--about food. In sharing her ponderings, she sets a delightful example for those of us who seek the
Joan Dye Gussow is an extraordinarily ordinary woman. She lives in a home not unlike the average home in a neighborhood that is, more or less, typically suburban. What sets her apart from the rest of us is that she thinks more deeply--and in more eloquent detail--about food. In sharing her ponderings, she sets a delightful example for those of us who seek the healthiest, most pleasurable lifestyle within an environment determined to propel us in the opposite direction. Joan is a suburbanite with a green thumb, with a feisty, defiant spirit and a relentlessly positive outlook.
At the heart of This Organic Life is the premise that locally grown food eaten in season makes sense economically, ecologically, and gastronomically. Transporting produce to New York from California--not to mention Central and South America, Australia, or Europe--consumes more energy in transit than it yields in calories. (It costs 435 fossil fuel calories to fly a 5-calorie strawberry from California to New York.) Add in the deleterious effects of agribusiness, such as the endless cycle of pesticide, herbicide, and chemical fertilizers; the loss of topsoil from erosion of over-tilled croplands; depleted aquifers and soil salinization from over-irrigation; and the arguments in favor of "this organic life" become overwhelmingly convincing.
Joan's story is funny and fiery as she points out the absurdities we have unthinkingly come to accept. You won't find an electric can opener in this woman's house. In fact, you probably won't find many cans, as Joan has discovered ways to nourish herself, literally and spiritually, from her own backyard. If you are looking for a tale of courage and independence in a setting that is entirely familiar, read her story.
Two decades ago, when nutritionist Gussow was giving fiery speeches about the importance of eating locally and seasonally, she realized that it was time to put her convictions into practice. In this combination memoir, polemic, and gardening manual, she discusses the joys and challenges of growing organic produce in her own New York garden. Initially, Gussow had planned to write about her misadventures in buying a 150-year-old house on a Hudson River floodplain. That story was incorporated into this book, but many of the boring remodeling details should have been omitted. Interesting points include a description of establishing her new garden, tips on making compost and on growing fruits and vegetables successfully in a northern climate, and various recipes using the garden bounty. Throughout, Gussow stresses the need to live responsibly "in a society where thoughtless consumption is the norm." Her constant reminders that industrial agriculture produces tasteless, environmentally destructive food well intentioned though they may be start sounding like a litany after a while. Yet, despite its flaws and self-righteous tone, this work offers encouragement to urban and suburban gardeners who want to grow at least some of their own produce. A suitable addition to gardening collections in public libraries.
"I love the 'sustainable hedonism' term that has been applied to Joan. Her homespun storytelling serves as an inspiration to all of us that we can be good stewards of ourselves and the earth, all while having a splendid time!"--Janet Luhrs, author of The Simple Living Guide, and Simple Loving and editor and publisher of Simple Living: The Journal of Simplicity
"It's very rare to be moved by a gardening book, but "This Organic Life" has an uncommon depth of feeling."--New York Times Book Review
"Reading This Organic Life could be dangerous... It might make us excited about doing things differently..."--The Times Argus
"highly readable... helps us understand the true cost of food, and the joys and challenges of growing and eating it."--HopeDance Magazine
Read an Excerpt
How It All Began
Might it not be that eating and farming are inseparable concepts that
belong together on the farm, not two distinct economic activities
as we have now made them in the United States?
Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land
* * *
I arrived at adulthood without a hint that vegetable production might become central to my life. I remember the names of some of the shrubs my garden-loving mother planted around our California bungalow, but I have no memories of home-grown produce. In prewar Southern California, home gardens were mostly places for Outdoor Living. The citrus or avocado trees that graced them seemed grown as much for decoration as for fruit. I seem to recall an attempt at lettuce next to our garage during World War II, but a home-grown carrot would have been more memorable, and I remember nothing of the sort. So our vegetables, I suspect, came mostly from Ralph's market.
Serious food production began many years later, when my handsome artist husband Alan and I fled Manhattan with our infant son to our first house, a large, cheap Victorian that "needed work," twenty miles north of New York City, in a hamlet called Congers. Cash was desperately short; growing food seemed economically prudent. So, on a heavily oak-treed half-acre, we took up food production. Our first garden was a small, irregular patch north of the house, the only spot where the sun found its way between the tree tops for a part of each day. We grew the usual: leaf lettuce, green beans, cucumbers, broccoli, and tomatoes. We even tried Brussels sprouts. And, of course, zucchini from giant plants that persisted in producing right through the early stages of the borer attack that unfailingly killed them, by which time we had usually eaten more than enough zucchini for the year.
We had a few triumphs in that small garden, including a peach tree that was so productive it eventually broke under its own weight. But a fact about that early garden more lastingly important than its overbearing peach was that it hooked us on producing food. The year the surrounding trees finally obliterated the sunny patch (the year the Brussels sprouts headed almost directly east instead of up) we knew we had to find some sun.
But where? We searched the yard. Even if we could have afforded to take down a tree, which we couldn't, we would have had to remove two oak trees and a majestic copper beech to keep the garden where it was. We were desperate enough to considerbrieflyturning the garage into a greenhouse and the sunny unpaved driveway into a garden. The financial implications brought us to our senses.
In fact, the financial implications finally solved our problem. We couldn't afford the cost of removing any of our giant oaks, so we had to find someone who would do it for free. Alan, goaded by necessity, had an inspiration. Some branches of the oak tree nearest the driveway were almost touching the telephone wires. Perhaps we could convince the phone company that the tree was a hazard; removing it would open up at least half of our large south lawn to the sun.
Removing a full-grown oaka tree at least a hundred years oldseemed a wicked thing to do. I was in graduate school by then, becoming increasingly aware of environmental limits. Trees were not merely beautiful, they took up carbon dioxide and gave off oxygen. Before we could call the phone company, I had to convince myself that an old tree inhaled and exhaled less than an actively growing vegetable garden.
I convinced myself, and we called. A representative of Ma Bell, who was everyone's phone family in those days, came to scout the situation, and agreed to remove the tree once it had lost its leaves in the fall. We were going to have a real garden! The soon-to-be garden was now, however, a 30-by-40-foot swath of lawn. We had removed sod before and had no desire to do it again. We decided to exploit the months until the oak came down by forcing the grass to rot in place.
Through the summer and fall, we piled onto the lawn anything organic that would cover it: chopped leaves, food scraps, woodchips, and, topping it off, old newspapers with salt hay to hold them down. My gardening neighbor Julia, who had watched me hand-weed dandelions and lovingly tend the grass, peered skeptically over the fence, but I had no doubts.
That is, I had no doubts until October when the phone company came to take down the tree and open the land to the sky. Up in a cherry picker went a uniformed woodsman armed with a chainsaw. As he looked over that magnificent oak, I began to feel queasy. The tree's massive silhouette against the southern sky was familiar and comforting. I found myself resenting this insensitive brute who was ready to destroy it. Then he looked down from his perch and shouted, "It's a shame to take this down. It's a beautiful tree. There's nothing wrong with it." And I had to shout back with a show of dumb female resistancebecause if I agreed with him we wouldn't have a garden"Oh, but we're really worried that branches will come down on your wires." Then I fled into the house, overwhelmed with guilt.
The next spring we began to plantfirst large seeds that could be poked right into the ground through the layer of stuff on top: Country Gentleman corn, Provider and scarlet runner beans, Big Max pumpkins. Then we dug deep holes through the accumulated litter and rotted sod for the vegetables we set out as plants: tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. Later, when we had chopped trenches the length of rows and filled them with fine compost, came the smaller seeds: lettuce, carrots, beets, herbs. Near the street, right next to the oak stump in the leaf litter and sawdust, we also planted Latham red raspberries, because I remembered that raspberries liked rotting wood.
By this time, I was an aging graduate student teaching two huge classes, working on my doctorate in nutrition education, and gaining a certain notoriety for saying that I thought the American food system was using resources unsustainably. I mention this because I was interviewed in the summer of 1974 by a classy trade magazine called Food Management and they sent a photographer out to shoot me in my garden planted through the turf. I know it was a spectacular sight; I have pictures. In one, I am standing, tanned and smiling, up to my armpits in a forest of zucchini; in another, lush corn stalks tower two feet over my head. All of it thriving in the mixture of chopped oak leaves, garbage, old newspapers, and worm droppings, which together with the decaying turf and the years of accumulated Scott's lawn food, produced a burst of fertility. The next spring, when we began to actually dig the garden, we realized why our home county was called Rockland. It would be years before we reached that level of fertility again.
That year, 1975, was a landmark one for usin the garden and otherwise. Our seed order showed plans for an ambitious planting: beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chicory, cucumbers, fennel, lettuce, okra, onions, peas, spinach, and two kinds of tomatoesfourteen different kinds of seeds and two bunches of onion plants. My garden map also shows potatoes, so evidently we put in a serious garden. I doubt that I did much gardening that spring, however, since I was completing my dissertation, and in the space of two weeks in May, I took my oral exam and became department chair (not a recommended career path!). I have no recollection of anything other than stress. Alan probably stepped in to take charge of starting the garden, wisely escaping from the house where I was trying to write my thesis.
But the year's more important gardening event took Alan away before the harvest. He had been hired to teach the fall quarter at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I would not have chosen the year of my first academic appointment to have a bi-coastal marriage. But the California interlude made a permanent mark on our gardening life, for the Santa Cruz campus was the center of a remarkable gardening experiment that fascinated both of usme as a maverick nutritionist, Alan as an artist.
In 1967, a Shakespearean actor turned gardener-mystic named Alan Chadwick had come to the Santa Cruz campus from England, invited by some of the more "advanced" faculty. There, despite the hostility of the more conventional academics, he had been allowed to start gardening on an impossible campus site, a rocky, precipitous hillside overgrown with brush and young trees. With the help of students, he turned the hillside into a breathtakingly beautiful flower-vegetable-fruit-herb garden from which he and the apprentices prepared communal meals.
By the time my Alan got to Santa Cruz, Chadwick had decamped north after a terminal fight with the trustees. But the garden still flourished under the guidance of former apprentices, and the techniques Chadwick taught had been extended to a campus farm that operated on a flatter piece of ground well down the hillside from the garden. Alan fell in love with the productive beauty of the farm. He spent mornings there learning about double-digging and raised beds, and afternoons leading his art classes in sketching vegetables.
The spring following his return, we began attempting to double-dig our two-year-old vegetable garden, which had, until then, survived on the fertility of the former lawn. I say "began" and "attempting" because beneath the upper six inches, the soil was hard red clay. And buried in the red clay were formidable boulders tangled in the massive roots that had once braced the now-felled giant oak.
I won't detail the process of double-digging; it can be found in words and pictures in the incomparable manual, How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible in Less Space Than You Can Imagine, by former Chadwick apprentice John Jeavons. In outline, however, the process involves removing the top foot of soil from a bed three to five feet wide, using a digging fork to break up the now exposed lower layer, and then replacing the top layer enriched with compost and fertilizer. Because the process adds so much air down to a level of nearly two feet, the soil is lofted, and a finished bed looks like a long, newly dug grave.
Fortunately, Alan and I had no one to bury, because our "gravedigging" was excruciatingly slow. Our red clay soil could have been used to make ashtrays. That "exposed lower layer" had lain there untouched for years and had no intention of giving in to the whims of novice double-diggers. With two of us working at itlevering up to the surface boulders too heavy for either of us to liftthe first 4-by-20-foot bed took two weeks to dig. That year we dug only two. The rest of the garden we turned over and planted in the usual shallow way.
Ultimately, the 30-by-40-foot plot, opened to the sun by the oak's demise, became the site of nine double-dug beds, four feet wide and varied in length to fit the irregular garden perimeter. The soil became deeply soft, filled with tiny pellets of worm droppings that kept it so loose you could plunge your arm in up to the elbow. This was the spot on which we gradually matured into what I suppose one would call year-round gardenersaddicts who were sometimes still harvesting in December and often began again in late January or early February when a brief thaw allowed us to grub parsnips out of the ground.
Although it now seems obvious that vegetable self-reliance is possible in the northeastafter all, the settlers did it with many fewer storage possibilities than we haveit didn't seem that way when we started. Like everyone in our generation, we had been raised on stories of desperate pioneers, struggling to survive. When I made the decision to work toward eating only what we grew, the likelihood that we would ever reach that goal seemed remote. Our mutation from vegetable gardeners to mini-farmers evolved very slowly, over time. We learned as we went.
We tried sweet bell peppers, not very successfully at the beginning, but it was several years before we tried eggplant or sweet potatoes. Our early attempts to grow garlic were pitiful, since we followed instructions in some newspaper gardening column to plant the cloves in spring and usually got back just about what we planted. Then we learned to plant garlic cloves in the fall so they could push their roots down into the soil before it was deeply frozen. We gave up early on spinach. It was a magnet to leaf miners, who left their little white trails under the skin of the fleshy crinkled leaves and reduced the plants to crumpled brown blobs.
Through all these years of gardening, we never laid down a step-by-step path to self-sufficiency, but I did keep garden records. At first I simply kept copies of seed orders; my plot plans and notes from the 1960s focus on the time of bloom of various flowering trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs. Through the 1960s and 1970s, our vegetable orders changed little. We added Waltham butternut squash from time to time, a great hairy scrambling vine that defied squash borers and produced so much that half of last year's crop often remained in storage when planting time arrived! More than once we tried okra, green or purple, acorn squash, and pumpkins.
Most of our novel choices in those days were curiosity driven: "Early Purple Head cauliflower sounds interesting," one of us would say. "I wonder if we could grow it." It grew all right. Huge. And made a purple cauliflower atop its giant stalk. We concluded that cauliflower in general wasn't worth the space it occupied. In 1978, a giant "melon" squash from the English seed company Thompson and Morgan climbed all over the arbor at the garden entrance and then leaped a path to the adjoining shed and garage, producing so overwhelmingly that we stopped growing it. One squash could feed more people than we wanted to have to dinner, and anyway, after six months in storage, it didn't, as promised, taste like a melon, more like an old squash. Green soybeans were a successful novelty that we never omitted after our first experimental year; they freeze wonderfully and always stay al dente when cooked, even after freezing. Twenty-five years later you can find them in some markets as edamame.
Our potato-growing started early, with Red Norland, a variety that produces bright red tuberseasy to see, fun to dig. That was the only variety we grew for several years even though they needed to be eaten soon, started sprouting in storage in November, and were useless by January. When we got serious about self-reliance, we learned that other varieties stored better, even through the winter.
As I think back, it seems clear that the first serious sign of our move toward vegetal self-reliance was when we stopped planting everything in the spring. Up to then, we had planted "the garden" all at once as soon as the risk of frost was past. Now we learned that we could start some things earlier: lettuce, peas, spinach, carrots, potatoes, and then wait until I had finished teaching in mid-May or early June to have a planting orgy.
For years we battled slugs for our carrot seedlings. Those slender green shoots emerging from the ground were perfect appetizers. A grazing slug on early spring patrol could clear a bed in one night. And the broccoli plants carefully started indoors were usually killed or crippled by root maggots, whose presence was announced when the plants' crisp blue-green leaves abruptly wilted in the midday sun of May.
One summer, it occurred to us that when the carrots and broccoli were ready to harvest, everything else was too, overwhelming us with produce. Planted later, carrots could stay in the ground long after the tomatoes and eggplant had succumbed to the first frost. And carrots newly emerging in late June or early July would be of much less interest to slugs who had so many other things to enjoy.
As for the broccoli, the flies that laid maggot eggs at the bases of its stems flew only in early spring. If our garden held no broccoli seedlings to invest their future in, they would go elsewhere. Broccoli seeded outdoors in early June comes on strong just as the basil and tomatoes are in full production, which allows for a lovely pasta dish.
Pasta with Broccoli and Pesto
Make a 1-cup batch of pesto. In processor or blender purée:
1 1/2 cup flesh basil leaves
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Blend, and remove to small bowl. Stir in:
1/4-cup mixture of grated Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheese
Core and cut into bite-sized wedges:
1 large (or 2 to 3 small) red ripe tomato
Cut into small flowerettes:
1 bunch broccoli
Trim broccoli stems, cut into bite-sized pieces, and steam until
crisp and tender (3 to 5 minutes).
In a saucepan heat:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon (or more) hot red pepper flakes
Cook over medium heat, stirring gently to warm through. Hold.
Cook in boiling salted water:
1 pound rigatoni or other tubular pasta
Drain, reserving a little boiling water to thin pesto.
When ready to serve, put cooked pasta into a bowl, add one or two tablespoons hot pasta water to pesto, stir until thinned, and pour over pasta. Salt to taste. Add broccoli and tomato, and toss to blend. Serve immediately.
Note: I use a pasta pot that has a steamer basket over it, so I steam the broccoli while the pasta is cooking, and add it to the olive oil/garlic/pepper mix just about the time I drain the pasta.
* * *
Over time, our success at extending the season evolved into a decision that we should try growing all our own vegetables and as much of our fruit as we could. I've had trouble, however, remembering just when that choice was made. The closing essay for my 1978 book, The Feeding Web, about problems in the food system, concludes with a tip of the pen to the term "relocalization," which I saw as encompassing "many of the changes that look most promising where the food supply is concerned." Research then going on about a largely Vermont-based diet seemed extreme to many people, I said, but "in a time when a snowstorm or truckers' strike can cut off all food from a city the size of Boston, such research is surely at least as potentially useful as that aimed at designing one more packaged cake mix." But words are not deeds, and I talked about the idea of eating locally long before we started seriously trying to do it.
However, my professional commitment to living by what I believe caught up with me. Sometime in the 1980safter one of my fiery speeches about problems in the food systemI was challenged once too often about what on earth I thought residents of the frozen north were going to eat in the dead of winter. Responding to the (incorrect) assumption that I favored exclusion of all citrus north of the Mason-Dixon line, I learned to point out that midwesterners got their vitamin C by eating cabbage and potatoes long before Europeans "discovered" California or Florida and began growing oranges.
Ultimately, however, theory was not enough. Like Farley Mowat, the Canadian naturalist who consumed field mice to prove that wolves were living on rodents rather than endangered caribou, I realized that I would need to eat locally myself to prove that a human being could do so. I never meant our food growing to be a demonstration that every New Yorker could feed herself entirely from her own land. That would have been naive. The effort was always intended to demonstrate what could be grown locally, provided consumers encouraged farmers to grow all the variety they could for their neighborhoods. I wanted to prove that eating locally was feasible, healthy, and even tastyif northeastern eaters would learn to enjoy living on what nature allowed.
I remember setting myself the goal of writing a very local (Rockland County) cookbook, showing what you could eat in the difficult months, and it was then that I realized that I needed a good harvest calendar. I had a notebook in which I wrote down what was going on in the garden through the year, but it was incomplete and inconsistent enough to be frustrating. I didn't want to compete for the earliest tomato prize, but when did our first tomato ripen? How long did the tomato sauce we put away in the freezer last? When did gaps occur in the yearly production and how might they be filled? If we decided to use only produce from the garden, could we do it? When would we be reduced to foods we didn't produce? What could we plant to compensate for that?
I made a card for each vegetable we grew, with the months listed across the top and the years listed down the left side. Then I recorded when we sowed, when we planted out, when we began to harvest, how long the harvest continued, and how long we had crops stored in the cold cellar and the freezer. And gradually we extended our harvest season. We learned to sow early spinach under a floating row cover that kept out leaf miners. When the spinach went to seed in the summer heat, we pulled it out and planted parsnips in the same bed, as a winter crop. When we harvested broccoli heads, we learned to cut the stem very close to its root, just above the first two leaves, so that the sturdy stalk wouldn't send up tiny new shoots from each of fifteen leaf nodes, but just two vigorous new shoots to produce a second crop of broccoli heads late into the fall. We learned to grow enough storage onions from seed to meet our needs all year; and we learned that potatoes can be long keepers as well as short keepers, that they come in early, middle, and late varieties, and that you can readily grow at home not only white, but yellow, red, and blue potatoes that sell for gourmet prices in the stores. Potatoes became a mainstay of our cold-season diet.
Another winter mainstay was kale, a green that can sometimes hold out till spring and canif forcibly discouraged from expressing its sexuality by alert removal of flowering stalksproduce for a second season. My romance with kale might never have occurred had Alan not been artist-in-residence at the Cape Cod National Seashore one fall. He was given kalethe only thing left in their gardens in Octoberby his Portuguese neighbors who appreciated his efforts to cook for himself. They taught him to steam kale with the Portuguese sausage linguisa. The next year, when we were still in the small shaded north garden at Congers, Alan insisted that we plant kale.
My relationship with kale was decidedly unfriendly at the time, as is reflected in some remarks about a garden I once tried in Maine, which I came across when writing this chapter. To my surprise, that garden contained kale, a memory I had totally suppressed. I wrote "N.G. bitter, blue gray, wasted." That about says it.
But while I didn't like kale, I went along with Alan's request that we plant it because I judged it morally essential to learn to like this incredibly nutritious vegetable. We planted the seeds in spring, and it did well. But each time that summer, when Alan would suggest we cook some, I would protest, "Oh, it's hardy, and other things will freeze. Let's wait till fall." I really dreaded having to eat it. In September, I gave in; Alan cooked some up in a heavy frying pan with a little linguisaand I loved it.
Later I learned to make wonderful Kale and Potato Soup. This recipe has been sufficiently modified from its original sources that I feel comfortable claiming it.
Excerpted from This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow. Copyright © 2001 by Joan Dye Gussow. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Joan Gussow is a highly acclaimed nutrition educator who has demonstrated that year-round eating from 1,000 square feet in a suburban riverfront village is possible, life-sustaining, and delicious. She is the author of This Organic Life, The Feeding Web, and Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables, and is Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita and former chair of the Columbia University Teachers College Nutrition Department. She lives on the Hudson River in Piermont, New York.
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This book is fabulous. Gussow has excellent gardening tips and wonderful insight into american agriculture. At first she seemed a little preachy, but as I kept reading I realized that this informational rant was necessary to motivate me to look into the food I purchase.
I really enjoyed this book. It was difficult for me to put it down. I became very motivated and anxious to have my own garden and be challenged to eat locally.