Peak Moment: How Much Food Can I Grow Around My House? (transcript)

Read this article in: English

Transcribed by April Scott

Judy Alexander: I always tend to take my own personal responsibility seriously. When I learn something, I have to be my own experiment. And that's kind of what this was. Like, "how much food can I grow?" And "how successful can I be at it?" And "how many people in my neighborhood also benefit from this produce?" And it's been kind of amazing to me.

Male Announcer: This is Peak Moment. We're living at a peak of human innovation, wealth and health. But we're also at a peak of population and consumption, with rising temperatures and declining resources, fueled by cheap oil and gas. Peak Moment Television, bringing you examples of positive responses to energy decline and climate change through local community action.

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. I'm in Port Townsend, Washington, on a classic Pacific Northwest, overcast day with my guest, Judy Alexander.

Judy Alexander: Hi, Janaia.

JD: Who's this? (pointing to cat in room)


JD: Archie?

JA: Archie, the cat.

JD: We are in Judy's wonderful backyard. How did you get involved with adventuring in gardening and more? There's a lot more to it.

JA:Well, I've been a gardener for a lot of years. Just a sort of hobbyist gardener. But, this - what I'm doing now, is definitely coming from a different place. I went to a real life changing conference with Donella Meadows, in the year 2000, I think it was, on Global Sustainability. And it just opened my eyes to the predicament that the planet is facing with limited resources and growing population. And peak oil, and all that stuff you guys know about. But this particular year was devoted - I've been trying to get out of my car for the last six years and have been reducing my fossil fuel usage pretty significantly. But this year's goal -

JD: 2006.

JA: 2006 goal, was to spend my summer seeing how much food I could grow on my property. And I live in town, I live three miles from the center of town, within the city limits, and I have a lot that's 75 by 125. And then my neighbor's yard. And I've just planted something in every square inch of dirt I could find. So, it's partly to see just how much I can provide for myself and my neighborhood, in the way of healthy food.

JD: You've got a real - I mean, that's a pretty major undertaking.

JA:At the end of summer, I would agree with you. (both laugh) I didn't know what I was doing when I started.

JD: You've got a prolific garden going here.

JA:I do.

JD: But it sounds to me, that you took Donella's workshop; you took something serious about that. That it wasn't just another set of good ideas.

JA: It was huge. It was huge. It was like a hit in the head with a two by four. The second day of this five day workshop, the entire 90 people were completely depressed. And it was mostly by Donella's information, because it seemed so hopeless. And luckily the remaining few days of the workshop were a little more inspiring and heartening to all of us. And we - two of us that went there from Port Townsend, came back with a twenty year commitment to each other. To change our town.

JD: Whoa.

JA: So -

JD: Hey, thank you.

JA:And then we met Dick and Jean Roy from the Northwest Earth Institute, like two weeks later. And we spent five years getting seventy Northwest Institute courses started, just in Port Townsend.

JD: What are about what? Tell us just a word or two about what those courses are.

JA: Voluntary simplicity. Choices for sustainable living. Deep ecology. Discovering a sense of place. Perspectives on the global economy. And there's one called 'healthy children, healthy planet'. That's a new one. They're eight week classes, that you just get a group of people together, and it basically clarifies your understanding and your value systems around the challenges to sustainability for us as a species.

JD: So, you've spent a while here, sharing and educating your neighbors in your town.

JA:Yeah, definitely. Yeah.

JD: And still are, I think? And this year the garden is doing a demonstration. Is that right?

JA:Yeah, it's been turning out to be a demonstration. But, it was more - I think that garden was really more of a personal challenge. I've been learning a lot about genetically modified foods. I've been seeing more and more how unhealthy the mainstream food supply is becoming. And I just didn't want to be a part of it. I just felt like "how am I going to take better care of myself?" And I always tend to take my own personal responsibility seriously. When I learn something, I have to be my own experiment, and that's kind of what this was. Like, "how much food can I grow?" and "how successful can I be at it?" and "how many people in my neighborhood also benefit from this produce?" and it's been kind of amazing to me.

JD: Well, it's - (both laugh)

JA: I'm kind of shocked myself

JD: Here we are

JA:I mean, the potato supply alone - this isn't even the entire harvest. This is probably about half the potato harvest here.

JD: So, we've got three huge boxes of potatoes. Show me one of these.


I never - this thing is huge (both laugh) I mean, it's like - this one's -

JD:A meal for three people.

JA: I know. Except, I could probably eat it. (both laugh) I was just - And they - it's not even the middle of August. I dug these a week or two ago. So, they were even harvestable before the end of the summer.

JD: So, you've got - I mean, this is your winter supply, or a good part of it.

JA:Yeah, if it lasts. If they store well.

JD:So, part of your thoughts here is; what is your land capable of? And your own energy? And your own resources?

JA: Exactly. Exactly.

JD: And with an eye to not just, I'm taking care of myself here. But, to share.

JA: I want to inspire people. I want to show people what you can do. Like, you can provide for yourself, in a way. It definitely takes time and it takes a certain amount of physical capacity and energy. I do spend time in my garden, probably every day. But, I don't want people to feel so dependent on - you know, we have a three day food supply. One of my projects, this last year, involved getting - going down to The Gulf Coast after Katrina. And I saw what happened to an entire community in face of a disaster. We're a waterfront community. We could have a tsunami. We could have an earthquake. We could have our food supply cut off, like that. (snaps fingers) And in our county right now, there's not even a three day food supply. If we get cut off from the mainstream. The Olympic Peninsula is the first to go from the power grid. I mean, we have all sorts of inherent vulnerabilities, in our location. That people kind of -- la, la, la -- and don't pay attention to.

JD:Because it means you have to change your life.


JD: Right. And our habits - we've got them, we've become so accustomed to the petroleum rolling, and the food coming in. And the grid working. And so on.

JA:Yeah. But, I want to go on record for saying how much fun this is. I don't think it would be as much fun, if the earthquake happened last week, and I was quick planting a garden, because I didn't think I would survive and I was scared. But, because I'm not scared, I'm challenging myself, and it's completely fun and joyful for me to come up with all these potatoes - (both laugh) - with very little effort. It's not - the potato patch was a breeze. It was easy.

JD: That's great.

JA:So, I just think people need to realize; even though getting in your car and driving to Safeway is easy, there's a lot of joy they're missing out on by being that dependent on the mainstream supply.

JD: And we're - you're probably going to have all kinds of stories about how you enjoyed eating these, (points to boxes of potatoes) for the next while.

JA:Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

JD: How many things did you try growing this year?

JA:Well, I actually thought I had about 35 or 40 different crops, if you want to call them crops. Or, plants growing. But, I actually wrote them down. And I have almost sixty.

JD: Sixty?

JA: Yeah.

JD: That's astounding. Well, I see you've got fruit trees. You've got some pear trees. That were part of this land yes?

JA:Yeah. I've been putting - adding to them, too. I moved in here, five years ago. And there was probably about six or seven fruit trees. But, I have since planted an extra cherry tree and a peach tree. Which I didn't know you could grow here.

JD: Wow, I didn't know that.

JA:But I have one peach on my peach tree this year.

JD: Yeah! (laughs)

JA: And I'm looking to see if I can find some space to put in a nut tree or two. I don't know if I'll be able to figure it out.

JD: That will be nice.

JA:But, I have probably, I don't know, ten or twelve fruit trees.

JD: So, what are the most out there things that you've planted this year?

JA:Well, I've tried one celery plant, just to see how it would grow. It's actually red celery, which I've never seen before. I brought it at the co-op, a little celery start. And I've planted leeks, really successfully. And I've planted - my main production goal this summer, was to grow very successful cauliflower. Because I had failed in previous years.

JD: I see.

JA: And I grew 17 really big and juicy -

JD: Ooooh.

JA:Yummy and sweet, cauliflower.

JD: Congratulations.

JA: And same number of cabbages. I had red and green cabbages. And four kinds of onions. And six kinds of lettuce.

JD: You've got raspberries. Carrots.

JA:Five kinds of berries. Blueberries, carrots, beets, beans. Corn.

JD: Squashes?

JA:Yeah, I've got five kinds of squash.

JD: Tomatoes.

JA: Tomatoes, yeah. All the usual. And then some of the unusual stuff. Some more successful than others.

JD: And so probably out of that, you've learned what you'll try next year. Or, what you might put somewhere else next year, a different variety, or whatever.

JA:Yeah, and what I'll repeat because I love it so much. The cauliflower is definite of that.

JD: (laughs) I can tell that. What I'd love to do is take a little bit of a tour. 'Cause, you've got some ingenious things you are doing here. And probably a place to start, as I look at the cloudy skies, is about rain and water and irrigation, and that whole thing. So, you've got a rain water catchment system.

JA:Yeah. That's something that my brother has designed for me. I'm not at physics oriented as he was. I've purchased, what is it, ten rainbarrels, twenty five bucks a piece, through the extension service. And I have four catching water off the roofs of buildings. And the other six receive water from those four barrels.

JD: Let's go take a look.

JA:Okay. (both walk) So, this is one of my ten rain barrels. And it's actually catching rain off of a little rental building off of my front yard. And the black marks on the rain barrel measure an eighth of an inch of rain. It fills the barrel this high.

JD: An eighth of an inch to do this high?

JA:Because, of the size of that roof that it's catching off of. This 500 square foot building, so it would be half of that roof.

JD: Okay, okay.

JA: And so with half an inch of rain, where the rain barrel fills. And that can happen in a couple of hours or definitely overnight, with a steady rain. And so the thing with rain barrels that was interesting for me to learn is that you get a lot of water with one rain storm. And you have to be on top of the system. It's not the kind of thing you can go and take a two month vacation, and expect that it operates by itself.

JD: Okay.

JA:Gardens and rain barrel systems, definitely keep you on the property.

JD: Be here.

JA:And make you pay attention to the weather. And that is all for me very good.

JD: That's nice.

JA:Very grounding.

JD: So, you collect the water here.


JD: And then what happens? Because, you've got it up above ground level.

JA:Right. The fact that it's raised up a little allows us to feed it to other garden barrels. And we'll go back and look at the ones in the garden that are not near a roof. Which is great, because the water is where I need it, by the plants. But, this rain barrel is hooked up to a fairly tricky little hose system with those shut off valves. It's got a splitter with shut off valves. It's like you can actually fill the rain barrel the tap. And you can fill it from the roof. So, in the dry season, we fill it up from the regular water system. And that way you can keep track of how much water you're using.

JD: Oh, yes.

JA: You can kind of keep a contained amount. You can keep track of how many times you have to fill it.

JD: So, when you turn the spigot on, what happens? Where does it go?

JA:You turn that spigot on, and with the way that splitter is right now; it goes into a hose, that travels alongside the fence that goes up the side of my property. And there's three rain barrels that this one barrel can fill.

The first one is at the end of my raspberry patch. That soaker hose irrigates my raspberries. The next one is on the other side of the fence that goes to the potato patch, where those potatoes came from.

And the last barrel on the line, was one that irrigated my kale and onion beds.

JD: So, that's clever. I mean, it's just ding. Ding. Ding.

JA:Yeah. There's just one long hose, with sort of splitter hoses off. And then there's clips that you can clip on the end of the hoses. So, you can fill the first barrel. Then you clip it. And it goes to the second barrel. And you clip it. And then it goes to the third barrel. So, I'm going to go ahead and turn this on, and we're going to get the water going to the raspberry patch.

JD: Okay.

JA: And then we'll come back and take a look to see what's going on there. (water fills barrel) Doesn't take very long to fill. And, each rain barrel that does fill has a little indicator flag that raises up when it -

JD: So, you've a little float in it, that changes.

JA:Yeah. I've got a float, when the flag raises up.

JD: So, you can know when your level is full.


JD: We'll take a look at that in a second.

JA:Okay, great. (barrel fills and flag floats) So, this rain barrel here is the one that catches the rain from the biggest section of my roof. So we had to figure out when we made this system, how to connect this rain barrel up to multiple rain barrels in the back. 'Cause, in a single night's rain, this roof right up here could catch up to three or four times the amount of rain that would fit into one barrel. So that's why the pipe runs across the way, to this other gutter system. And it goes down the gutter.

JD: Okay.

JA:And it feeds down to the other rain barrels in the back garden. And, the flag at the top, is what I mentioned before. It measures how high the water level is. Since you can't see through these, like the white ones. You can see the level of the water. But, the black ones you can't. So, the flags are on a little float system. And they go up and they go down, based on the level of the water.

JD: Right.

JA: And this is the freezer. (both laugh) It's an outside freezer.

JD: That's a good use for this.

JA:I don't have room for it in my house. So, it's outside. And it holds the rain barrel, which is very heavy. And the sink has one faucet hooked up to the rain barrel, if I'm just washing off paint brushes, or, just something that needs sloppy water, I'll just use the rain barrel water. If I need clean water for something, I just use this faucet. (turns on faucet) So, then that's a splitter over there. Between the hose for one, and the sink for the other.

JD: Okay. And the water goes down to finish-

JA:Into a bucket. And the bucket gets dumped in the garden. As long as I know that the water is clean in the bucket, I put it on the garden. If I've done something sloppy in here, I'll take and dump it in the driveway or something.

JD: I love it. This whole system - it's like it didn't take a rocket scientist. And it's cute.

JA: It's funky, but it works!

JD: And it does. (both laugh)

JA:And you know, the way that my rain barrels are set up, they definitely require some tweaking here and there. There's little things you have. You have to get a new splitter. You have to change the height. Or you have to get a new hose. There's things you have to pay attention to, to keep it working. But it's totally fun.

JD: Yeah, and it works. So, from over here at the other barrels, then you've got it hooked up to other hoses and stuff for your other beds?

JA:Yeah, let's go look.

JD: Okay.

JA: (both walk to barrels) Okay, so these are the back rain barrels that are fed off the big roof. And these two white ones are hooked together so they fill simultaneously. And this one is hooked up to hoses that deliver water over to the corn patch.

JD: Okay.

JA:With soaker hoses. This hose is buried underground, and snakes around to the carrot row, and the leek row, and the broccoli row, where the cauliflower used to be. (both laugh) Before I ate it. And if I just turn this on, like that - (turns on hose) That activates the drip system, which this year I only have hooked up in those three rows. Next year, I'm going to have a drip system as many places as I can get it because it's awesome. It's totally conservative of water usage. With the rain barrels just with this three foot off the ground, it has enough pressure to force the water out the drip tape and delivers the smallest amount of water needed to the root system of the plants, and nothing else. And then if you mulch on top of the drip tape, the mulch keeps the wetness in, too. And it's amazing. I haven't mulched the carrot row because the carrots needed to come up before I -

JD: Yep, little guys yet.

JA:But I will mulch them. Before the leeks and the broccoli and before the cauliflower were mulched. And it works really great.

JD: What's this contraption?

JA: This is great. I, um, got all these five gallon buckets and jugs from the food co-op. They get tamari or olive oil from it. And this delivers water to my fruit trees, which I don't have on drip system. But, just by taking this little thing down here, I (turns on water hose) fill the bucket in just a matter of thirty seconds.

JD: Beautiful.

JA:Yep. And just hook it back up.


JA: So, that works well. (puts water hose on hook)

JD:That's really nice. I love it. From the rain. From the skies, to the roof, to the buckets, to the pipes, to the buckets, to the sucker. You've got a very inventive system that works so well for you.

JA: It really does. It's fun. It's got a lot of moving parts. But, it's totally - it works. Yeah.

JD: I want to go over there and take a look at the bees.

JA:Alright. Over to the bees.

JD: Let's see what else you've got.

JA:Let's go look at the bees.

Alright, well we're in the middle of the bee airport, here. There's no air traffic control, as far as I can tell.

JD: They're everywhere. (both laugh)

JA:They're coming and going a lot. And lots of them have a lot of pollen on their legs.

JD: It's gorgeous. This beautiful orange color.

So, how did you get into doing bees?

JA: Well, that's an interesting story. I mentioned the Northwest Earth Institute courses, which we started talking. One time I was taking the course on Choices for Sustainable Living. And this woman was doing an opening at the beginning of the evening. And her opening, which is just like a little story at the beginning of the class, was telling us about her father keeping bees. And she had a bee box. And she got done telling the whole story about how she loved bees. And all of that stuff. She said, "And I am going to give this bee box to Judy." And I went, "really!" (both laugh)

JD: Oh.

JA:Well, I inherited a hobby that night, without realizing it. And I have come to find out that keeping bees is not inexpensive. There's a fair amount of cost involved. And it turns out that Marty, the woman who gave me the bee box, has been willing to be my mentor, and she pretty much cares for the bees. I'm learning, but I just didn't want to invest in the whole suit and hat, and all that stuff. She's got all the equipment. So, she takes care of the bees for me. They definitely make my garden way, way, way more productive.

JD: I bet they do.

JA:The raspberry patch, they're just in and out of that place all of the time. And I have learned to not fear them. I've only been stung once or twice, in about three years of having bees. So, it's - they're not unfriendly. But, boy are they busy.

JD: They're just happy as can be. Sun coming out.

JA: And I have had, I think, ten swarms this Summer.

JD: Wow.

JA:They go in that pear tree over there, and this plum tree. And they just - one swarm was about this tall. (motions hands) And about this big around. I don't know where all the bees came from. But it was huge. I'd never seen such a big one before. So, I keep getting more hives. And then I've been giving them away. I've been calling - I know all the people who keep bees in town now. Because, they've been coming in and picking up the swarms, and taking them away.

JD: What I hear in this, is a couple of things. One, is we know the bees are endangered, partly from diseases and killer bees and so on. So this is a wonderful healthy sign that you've got here, and that you're sharing it with your community. Because that's part of the point about your garden here, is that the bees are a shared project with people. So is your garden. I mean, one of the things that I just realized is that you said you have a lot and a half. Well, the half of a lot, the one that we're in -

JA: Is my neighbor's.

JD: - belongs to your neighbor.

JA: It's my neighbor’s.

JD: And I think the dramatic thing to see, is what you've done in yours, and what you started with. That's what the rest of your neighbors' yard is like. Let's take a look at that.

JA: Okay. (sound of chickens clucking) How about some cabbage? Want some cabbage leaves, huh? (sounds of chickens clucking)

JD: Hi, girls.

JA: (sound of chickens clucking) These are my girls. We've got nine girls. I wanted a multi-racial flock. So, I have two black ones, a white one, two brown ones, and four, what I call checkerboards. (chickens clucking) And this is the third incarnation of the chicken coop. I had to move it in a few different configurations in my little area back here. Because of learning as I go as my experimentation model.

JD: Mmm, hmm.

JA: The first place had me walking through their poop to collect the eggs. (both laugh) And I thought that wasn’t such a good idea. So, now I can go like ten steps outside my back door and just gather the eggs.

JD: That's nice.

JA: I don't have to walk in the coop like this.

JD: You've got a little box separately for that. That's great.

JA: But, I have like a garbage hierarchy on my system here. Where the paper garbage goes to the trash. You know, like everybody else's house. Most of the organic food garbage goes to these guys. (points at chickens) And they just process everything from melon rinds to everything leafy. Greeny, seedy. The breads. Stuff like that. And then, like the lower echelons garbage. Like the coffee grounds, and the tea bags. The worms get that.

JD: Okay.

JA: So, we'll go and look at the worm bin in a minute. But, I like to send as little of my refuse to the garbage, you know, to the curb.

JD: You're following the principle in nature, that there is no such thing as waste, it just feeds the next thing in the process. And that's what you're doing here.

JA: I totally enjoy bringing my clients out to the chicken coop, when a chicken's just laid an egg. And have them gather the warm egg, fresh out of the chicken. And the kids in particular, are just awed by it. They've never seen it.

JD: Well, the thing about this, for a kid who has only seen cartons of eggs coming from the supermarket. I mean, these are live animals. And they're warm. And it's a miracle.

JA: And you see a miracle.

JD: Yeah.

JA: I even had one of my clients give me a chicken in trade for resources. It's kind of like the old stories of the country doctor.

JD: Well, you know the barter economy. That's - we're probably going to do more and more of that in times to come. Hi, girls.

JA: I love waking up to the sound of these guys clucking away in the morning. Waiting for me to come and let them out of their coop. But you do have to be a little bit mindful of - we have raccoons. Even though this is in the city limits, there's raccoons and deer, and all sorts of other wildlife that come through here. So, I have to kind of listen for the distress signal. The chickens get all revved up when there's a raccoon anywhere close. 'Cause, the trees over head. I mean, the raccoons can actually be sitting in these trees. And not still get to the chickens when they're cooped up behind them. But, they can sense that there's something dangerous nearby.

JD: Yeah, yeah. And be upset.

JA: And I know what it sounds like when it's that case. I actually ran out of my house one night - no, afternoon actually, in full mid-afternoon sun; barefooted to raccoon with one of these chickens in it's mouth.

JD: Ooh.

JA: And I screamed and it dropped the chicken, and scrambled out of the yard. And the chicken was fine.

JD: Uh-huh.

JA: But, I - you know, it's part of the learning for me, of growing so many plants. And keeping animals and chickens, and doing the worm bin and the compost heap. And all of this stuff, it’s just really seeing the whole cycle of nature and life, and food. It's just taught me so much about how things take care of themselves, really. It's like - we mess with it a lot. With the way we try to get rid of stuff. And chickens just know what to do with all of this stuff. It's just - they teach me so much. (chickens coo and cluck)

JD: That's how the natural world is, isn't it? It takes care of itself very nicely.

JA: It does.

JD: We have a lot to unlearn, or relearn. Or, learn in a different way, in our human scale. Well, let's go take a look at the worms.

JA: Alrighty.

So, Janaia, we're standing up above the last three months of my food harvest. Well, at least the stuff the chickens don't eat.

JD: Yeah, right.

JA : The remains of my tea bags and coffee grounds. And sort of non-chicken garbage for the last few months.

JD: Not much really.

Judy Alexander : Well, actually I divided it. This half is closer to the finished product of worm castings. And this is really quite richin nutrients, and kind of feeds back into the soil, for growing purposes. And you were remarking earlier about--

JD: Yeah, newspapers. You wouldn't have expected that in with the compost heap.

JA: Some worm keepers -- I don't know what you call them, but, some vermiculturists, or whatever, put in cardboard, like corrugated cardboard, books, and different things. My favorite story is that I had a bunch of old client confidential files that I needed to get rid of a few years ago when I didn't have a paper shredder, and didn't know somebody that had a paper shredder. So I took them out there and tore 'em up. And for about three months, my worms turned my confidential files into great compost for my garden. (both laugh) So, I felt like I had this secret, you know.

JD: You do! You just go over to your carrots, your beets, and say; thank you former client (both laugh) for feeding me.

JA: I think they probably feel totally secure, knowing that's how I took care of their secret information.

JD: So, that's a lot of worms in here. Little guys, big guys.

JA: Yeah. They tend to hang out in little enclaves, I noticed.

JD: Yeah, little guy and big guy together.

JA: And sometimes it seems they work kind of slow. And then - is it rich?

JD: (touches compost heap) Yeah. It's just has that nice, clean woodsy, earthy kind of fragrance.

JA: Yeah.

JD: Nothing smelly, at all.

JA: Yeah.

JD: Well, you do the whole cycle, don't you? We started from sun and rain.

JA: It's kind of coming together for me, in my mind. You know, after I've kept the bees for a while and done the worms for a while, and worked out the rain barrel system tweaks and stuff. It's really feeling more like a working, full circle thing.

JD: You've got circles and circles of whole life - the life thing.

JA: Yeah, it's real satisfying.

JD: Thank you. This has been a great tour.

JA: I'm really glad you enjoyed it. I just - you know, I grew up in a suburb. And feel like my heart is on the farm. Even though this isn't a farm. I really love being close to the earth like this. And I would recommend it to anybody.

JD: Thank you. Thank you.

JA: Thank you, Janaia.

JD: You're watching Peak Moment. It is a peak moment, with worms and all.

Male announcer: "Peak Moment Television". Presented by Yuba Gals Independent Media. Produced by Janaia Donaldson. Directed by Robin Mulgren.

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