Monthly Archives: September 2014

What’s Old is New Again: Suburban Homegardens Rethink the Greenbelt

Pumpkins Blacksburg, block from Main
Pumpkins Blacksburg, block from Main
Bursting out of their flowerpots, North American suburban homegardens have gone beyond tomatoes on the patio. There are persimmons in the roses in Falls Church, hops growing up chimneys in Annandale, pumpkin-filled front yards on the corner. Can sububurban agriculture be more pioneering and political than its urban cousin? Land, shifting demographics, local food sensibilities and fewer or no zoning policy limitation make suburban gardens possible, the intrinsic creativity and culture-in-your-mouth aspects of koo gua in Vienna make them delicious. The “what’s old is new again” greenbelt idea of small-scale local food produced for cities make may make them powerful.

Moving Forward on Hands and Knees: A Fall Meadow


Mary Quant said, “A girl is only as young as her knees.” She meant coltish and clattery, all pretty divots, well-hewn angles, and mostly one color, presumably, between an elegant shin and a saucy mini. Scrabbling in pajama bottoms on all fours, mug of coffee in one fist, I’m shoving my glasses up my nose, behind the azaleas of my front yard, ripping out hanks of stiltgrass like hair, saving the orchard grass, violets, and fleabane. I’m preparing to plant a meadow in this small pool of dappled, autumn light under a persimmon where I buried a cat named Doc. Who was dead and liked this spot – to lie in last year’s thin sun, baking the pain in his spine to a drone, when he wasn’t lying on my chest, peering into my face, willing me stop saying, “Oh, you handsome cat,” and do something.

On my knees in the fescue consulting Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, it’s surprising to know: “meadow” means “mowed land” – not coming from the word “mead,” that ancient, honied-summer Bacchus quaff at all. “Mowed land,” maybe, but I’ve let this grass, a 10-ish by 15 foot blob under Doc’s persimmon, never well groomed (the blob, that is; the cat, quite dapper), grow to see what would happen to a grass-centric ecology loosed from grass-centric management: fleabane rosettes arrived immediately – green in February and flowering by March, crawling through it now on my scuffed and purpley knees at the end of summer, there’s grape, poison ivy, something I always thought was spiny anoda, poke, persimmons both rotting and rotted – or maybe slurped hollow – just purple husks like sea urchins left, and violets. I’ll mow it now and, with honied summers and orange cats in mind, I’ll plant clover.


Floating Eggleston to Ripplemead and the New Huck Finn

IMG_4886On an Angler Survey with the DGIF on the New River: Even in late summer with the sycamores crowding the riverbank like spectators on the bends, a weary, dusty yellow and the karstic cliffs above them the color of old teeth and full of caves and dripping pines and, it has been recently discovered, by delighted UWV botanists, an endemic lichen called frosted rock tripe, you’d still say the New is green.
I’ll write more about this trip with DGIF fisheries biologist, J. Copeland.

Virginia Tech’s Food Print: Eating Smart and the Bitterness Hedonic Scale

Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm is 3200 acres of prime riverine farmland that supports the school’s agricultural research, instruction, and outreach missions growing and studying fruit, vegetables, row crops, and animals. Meanwhile, ten miles away, the university’s dining halls were serving 7.1 million meals every year using fruit, herbs, and veg trucked in from, if the  commonly used US food-mile average is used, 3000 miles away. Now, Virginia Tech’s dining halls, awarded first-place for “Best Food” by Princeton Review this year, is serving local food from Kentland. Good thinking.

Because they’re scientists, they figured out that sourcing broccoli from Kentland Farm reduced the transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions from 105,830.0 pounds to 258.3 pounds (a year? a mouthful? It wasn’t clear), however, they note, that that’s 99.8% reduction.

A taste-test of 98 participants compared local zucchini from the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market and nonlocal zucchini. They gave higher ratings to local zucchini for “eight of the ten characteristics” including something called the “Bitterness Hedonic Scale” and “local broccoli was also perceived as less bitter than the nonlocal” too. “Implying,” says the study rather stiffly, I thought, “that sourcing broccoli and zucchini locally will help reduce Virginia Tech’s carbon footprint and improve perceived quality,”

Fringe Food: Raising the Banal to the Sublime

Smuggled Bavarian and Cascade hops clamber every summer up the chimney. "I brought them in my socks. Hoping the beagles in the airport weren't up on hops."
Suburban home gardens display people’s relationships with food, ecology, culture, history, and science. Smuggled Bavarian and Cascade hops clamber every summer up a suburban chimney in Annandale, Virginia. “I brought them in my socks. through the airport, right passed the beagles,” says the beer aficionado.

A perfect storm has been brewing, raining food awareness onto our communal table: farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, maker-faires, glossy magazines gushing over gorgeous apples, artichokes, and bees. Small Food, Slow Food, School Food, locavore-for-a-year.

Northern Virginia, the historically company-man suburb of Washington DC, may be putting down its brief case and picking up its trowel. Environmental education from grocery stores, schools, volunteer groups, and county outreach means people increasingly can connect the seemingly far-flung dots of local food, energy, Chesapeake Bay water qualiy, dead zones, oysters, and chickens.

Now, tendrils of green are working their way into  perceptions of modernity and beauty, smart infrastructure, engineering, and architecture. We are planting grassy driveways, working rain chains and barrels under our green eaves that are feeding birds and bees. We are filling schools with light.  The storm is making us pull our plates even closer to our chins hatching brilliant schemes like: aquaponics in Annandale basements, mobile composting in College Park,  shitaake  tending in Falls Church.

And the waves stretch to the horizon: vertical agriculture – still in the rather Jules Verne stage–gleaming greenhouse pyramid-and flying car-stage three story tomato and lettuce stuffed glass houses clinging to the sides  of houses, cucumbers clambering over restaurants are sketching and prototyping in Annandale.

I have a hunch that American suburban backyards may be putting down deeper roots in small-scale food production than ever before. Driving around I was seeing  skeps in the azaleas, chickens by driveway, asparagus at the curb.

I’m collecting stories – epic and ordinary, like most people’s lives – about small-scale, suburban agriculture – urban ag-inspired with all city farming’s pre-gentrification  eco-socio-political motivation, but fewer space constraints and regulatory and public health limitations, a denser neighbor-network, more dollars already garden-focused – that’s the natural sprouting. Then, as suburbia becomes the the home of economic austerity – as last year’s Brooking’s Institute report found major metropolitan suburbs became home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in America – people are perhaps no longer wandering into  languid into the garden, leaving landed gentry flavor behind and striding into food production?

Pushed by need, pulled by market, and armed with a new green brio, American suburban backyards may be putting down deeper, still hidden roots in small-scale food production.

This blog looks at small scale food production – both commercial and non, I’m interested in garden composition, garden motivation, source of gardening know-how (is Cooperative Extension supplying advice and inspiration?), and garden location (increasingly gardens are grown frankly in front) in suburban northern Virginia.