BUILDING THE LOVELY BONES - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)



Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. We’re drawn by deep, ancient DNA to seek out pattern, symmetry, and repetition in our environment and find comfort and safety in it. It allows us some navigable protection from the unknowns of the natural world. Gardens and farms are highly unnatural, of course; they’re nature reined in and domesticated. There are no Darwinian paradigms at work on this cultivated ground. If there were, we’d all be very successful weed farmers. We have to coddle and protect our fragile crops (yank out weeds, deter pests, foil critters), because we know that a farm without acts of intervention, order, and control would simply no longer be. There’s no cease-fire or détente to be bartered between the farm and those who would undo it. It’s strike or be stricken.

Permaculture, a form of sustainable, regenerative agriculture that aspires to mimic natural ecosystems, is our closest model of working with (and not protecting ourselves from) nature. Permaculture’s ordering principles come from imitating the recurring patterns and symmetries of nature and incorporating them into design. Organic farming, at its best, works with nature as well but still imposes structure, design, and sustainable systems and protections that are essentially outside of the conventions of the natural world.

Before you grow anything, it’s important to have a design plan for your property, to cultivate the farm of your imagination before you cultivate it for real. If you can, come up with a broad master plan that you’ll complete in stages over a few seasons rather than get overwhelmed by rushing in and doing too much too fast. Farms and gardens presume attentive care, and you’ll need to gauge how much time you can or wish to invest.


You’ll want to grow on an exposed site, preferably with at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. Segue the garden so that it flows easily from your home, ideally from a kitchen or outdoor dining area. I like to grow in 5 × 20-foot (100 square feet) rows that stretch east to west, so that early and late light reaches through the farm, backlighting the beds and transforming them into beautiful, translucent ribbons of color. This does take planning, as you don’t want to have taller plants and structures in more southerly beds shading out those to the north. I make sure to plant all my taller annual flowers on the northern edge of the farm so I can preserve this visual effect. Beds oriented on a north-south axis might get more even light, but the overall impression your farm makes when the light is low and evocative will be diminished. There’s nothing like walking about your farm in the early morning with a good cup of coffee in hand, the farm waking up and glowing around you. Heaven.

Though planning and laying out your garden or growing space is a good off-season process, make sure you have an idea of how the sun moves across your property during the growing season, when trees are fully leafed out. Light in early spring and late fall is far different from the light during the majority of the season. There may be shadows that you can’t control, like those cast by neighboring houses or buildings or trees, and you’ll need to work around them. Laying out your growing beds in long rectangles that are narrow enough, at 5 feet, to reach into and cultivate from either side, with a lawn-mower-width strip of grass between them, will give the farm a pleasant and orderly symmetry. Because I farm biointensively, every inch of dirt in the beds is used and interplanted with successions of growth, so the green mowing strip around the beds is the only breathing space, and background color, between plantings.