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My wife, Susan, and I have always loved healthy food, especially the fresh, vine-ripened kind — which is why we routinely spent upwards of $400 on organic produce.
But it wasn’t until we accepted a dinner invitation from our friend Eliza, a master naturalist who grows all of her own food, that we realized just how amazing organic eating could really be.
As Eliza gave us a tour of her garden, Susan and I spotted these odd little husked fruits called ground cherries under a small shrub. We were blown away by their delicious, pineapple-citrus flavor.
That's when Eliza told us about the secret world of wacky and unusual heirloom foods most people don’t know about, unless you grow them yourself.
Making a ‘Food Forest’
When we bought a house the following year on a three-quarter-acre lot in Greenville, South Carolina, we tried our hand at gardening, just like Eliza.
We turned the far backyard, bordering a quarter-acre of forest, into a food growing space.
When a developer in the area was discarding some stones near a construction site, we used them to make raised soil beds. We spent only a few bucks for each packet of organic, heirloom seeds. We kept it fairly basic, planting carrots, tomatoes, ground cherries, peppers, eggplant and squash.
As for best gardening practices — there’s an art to it — Eliza shared all of her knowledge for successfully growing plants. (One of our favorites: To have the best yielding tomatoes, snap off all but the top leaf section on your seedlings, and then bury the stem in the soil up to about 2 inches below these leaves.)
It didn't take long before we were hooked — and within three years, we'd turned a full half-acre of our property into our edible food forest. Today, we have fruit trees, nut trees, herbs, veggies and even fungi that we've integrated into a beautiful landscape.
During the warm-weather months, we grow grapes, peaches, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, potatoes, corn, tomatillos and, of course, ground cherries. We also produce some more interesting varieties, like cape gooseberries, Native American corn in all colors and garden huckleberries, which make for great pies.
In the colder months our production decreases a bit, but we still grow lettuce, kale, arugula, cilantro, spinach and carrots under hoop houses, which are light frames covered in plastic that we can build in a couple of minutes.
In an average year we harvest literally thousands of pounds of food. Squash alone yields hundreds per week in the summer.
We also have five heritage breed ducks, which are better at producing eggs than chickens. If you’ve ever ordered crème brûlée at a high-end restaurant, you’ve probably eaten duck eggs — chefs prefer them for their rich flavor.
All in all, our homegrown foods cost about $300 to produce each year, which includes the cost of seed-starting materials and liquid fertilizer. And as perennial plants get bigger — berry bushes, fruit trees, asparagus, and sorrel — they require less care and produce more food.
Most of the produce sold in stores is generic and relatively bland, so to put a number on how much money we save is like comparing apples to oranges — no pun intended. But if we were to buy comparable food from an organic grocer, it would probably cost us $1,500 to $2,000 a month for the same quality, quantity and variety.
That savings frees up money in our budget to spend on other foods we enjoy but don’t grow ourselves, such as high-quality meat that we get from local farmers for about $100 a month, as well as milk, cheese and butter. We even purchase our coffee from a friend who has an organic microbrewery in Asheville.
You’re probably thinking that tending to this massive food forest would require a lot of work. But, surprisingly, we don’t have to do much to maintain it.
Reaping What We Sow
We’ve developed a great understanding of letting the garden take care of itself. For instance, we use wood chip mulch, which prevents weeds, provides fertilizer and equalizes our soil moisture.
Over the course of the year, we probably spend just one to two hours a week on garden tasks, like spreading mulch or pruning the fruit trees. During the summer and spring, when things are really growing, we’ll spend more time harvesting.
But we view that time as an investment in our health and our relationship. Working in the garden is a fun couples activity, plus it allows us to get in a bit of exercise.
Whatever we don’t eat or give away when it’s fresh, we preserve. If we have extra raspberries, blackberries, elderberries or grapes, we throw them into a blender, lay them on dehydrating racks, and make fruit jerky.
Susan and I decided to turn our hobby into a source of income last June. In addition to our full-time jobs running a marketing company together, we started a monthly organic seed subscription box service that includes some of the more interesting heirloom varieties we love.
Since starting our business, we’ve been fielding a lot of questions from people about how to start food gardens—and we always suggest starting small. Yes, our whole yard is edible now, but it wasn’t always that way. You can start a patio garden with just a few pots.
And don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a lot of land. There are plenty of options coming out now for apartment dwellers, including aquaponic systems, home garden systems and grow lights.
Lastly, if you mess something up, don’t worry! Even we didn’t know what we were doing the first year. We overwatered, we underwatered, and a lot of our plants died that year, as a result.
But that’s normal; growing your own food is like riding a bike. You fall over, get up and figure out how to do it better next time.