Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
After fields and pasture, the first impression the word farm is likely to suggest is buildings and structures: farmhouse, barns, coops, corncribs, haylofts, stables, granaries, silos. These structures, usually clustered in a sensible huddle somewhere near an access road, immediately conjure up the paradigm of a family farm. Images like these have faded from ubiquity as small farms continue to disappear (it’s time to “get big or get out,” as Nixon’s dangerously misguided secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, said in the 1970s), but we know what these places represented, and we have a nostalgic connection to their aesthetic and cultural value.
Just as places like Colonial Williamsburg and other living history museums have preserved the cultural practices of the past, part of the beauty of creating your own small farm, farmette, or garden will come from artfully alluding to that past. One of the most direct ways to do so is through structures, and you’ll discover that there are so many graceful and historic design harmonies to be found in the aesthetics of the agrarian past. Use them as inspiration but not a plan; allow an intuitive sense of your own property and its character to guide you, and build around those ideas. Above all, make your structures dance and play—whether you remodel, repurpose, or start building from scratch. “You cannot make a building unless you are joyously engaged,” said the architect Louis Kahn.
The buildings you design—or redesign—for your property need to embrace utility as much as they play with patterns, lines, and form. Structures too removed from honest purpose will seem like mere embellishment, a laugh rather than a smile. A farm at its core is purposeful, an organized space to grow food, but in our mechanized obsessions with efficiency and output, we’ve lost our allegiance to beauty, our ability to express it. Finding the right balance between beauty and function is a challenge. You need to allow yourself time to discover and make sense of your surroundings, to listen visually and understand deeply until you’re fully aware of where you are.
One of the things I heard in the visuals right away at Stonegate was that the property evolved over time; it wasn’t created all at once. It was built up as the demands and interests of the estate grew. You see it in the various rooflines (saltbox, shed, gable, cross-gable, pyramidal, mansard) and the siding (stucco, board-and-batten, clapboard). What the buildings have in common (besides a color palette and a zoning map) is the integrity of their materials, the rightness of their design, and a shared evolutionary context. This is not a museum. This is a real place, with a progressive history and pattern language of its own. The best communities are always a mix of the interesting but diverse sharing a common space. So, too, with architecture.
The buildings I constructed and added have played off the larger visual context of the property, drawing on existing ideas but elaborating on them, stressing and repeating certain features and underplaying or ignoring others. Bad design limits itself to pattern and formula, while good design imaginatively expands on it. The Gothic ornament I’ve added at Stonegate wasn’t originally there, but it broadens the period references of the board-and-batten style. The greenhouse, coop, and CSA shed all in some way reference the rest of the outbuildings, but each is distinct. When I stand back and take in the macroview of the place, it all comes together and connects. The buildings may speak the same language, but they’re not all saying the same thing.
Among the other structures you’ll likely build, besides fences and outbuildings, are a smaller, supporting cast of beehives, compost bins, trellises, coldframes, pole bean pyramids, tomato towers, and high and low tunnels. These structures, like diacritical marks stressing functions that are essential to growing, play an important part in the overall coherence and beauty. I make a conscious effort to use material and design ideas that fit the visual flow of the farm. I don’t use many plastics, and I try to design and build most of my structures for growing vertically—like towers for pole beans or trellises for squash, cucumbers, or tomatoes—out of cedar, bamboo, or other rot-resistant natural materials. I prefer 14-gauge galvanized steel wire, rigid reinforcing panels, and natural jute twine over plastic netting and PVC for climbing plants. My beehives are painted a dark and light Provençal blue—not a major part of the palette at the farm, but the same color as the gates to the main gardens, places as essential to me as my bees.
The beauty in the small details adds up, and it’s important to be as mindful of them as of the larger structures. I had two farmers one season who called me the farm’s “creative director” (disparagingly, sometimes) because of my visual compulsions. I made them trade in their practical but ugly harvest buckets for nicely patinated, but heavier, wooden crates because they looked and photographed better. Can’t help it.
My farm is a romantic place, to be sure, not lacking in attention to beauty and historical allusions, but it’s not for everyone. It may feel too patrician for some (it is on an old estate), or too formal and fussed over, but it is a distinct expression of a certain point of view, a particular way of being in the world. And even though it’s been built up, restored, salvaged, and reimagined in the most hands-on, DIY sense, it doesn’t look that way. I’m one kind of farmer, coming into it with my own peculiar needs and vision, but there will be all kinds of new farms and farmers and new gardens and gardeners out there in the years ahead who will redefine agriculture for themselves. From the nonconformist protohippy types in the young farming community growing sprouts and microgreens to the urban and suburban demographic that has exhausted all the mainstream consumer myths, these gardeners are beginning to steward and farm small parcels of arable land for their own wellness and as a form of reconciliation with the natural world.
Whatever your reasons for wanting to create a nourishing farm or garden, the work waits for you and the future needs you. Growing beautiful food will give you a lifetime shot through with joy and purpose and will leave a better, more balanced world for others to inherit. As poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry said, “A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world.”