Location: Fleetwood, PA
Size: 0.88 acres
Gardeners: Eric and LeeAnn Girolamo
Established: Spring 2010
After getting married, Eric sold his co-op apartment and moved in with LeeAnn. We lived in very cramped quarters in LeeAnn’s small second story rented apartment and saved money so we could buy a house. Both of us love nature, plants and had prior gardening experience as well as growing house plants. Our first garden together was in two 5 gallon buckets that Eric drilled drainage holes in and placed outside the front door of the rental house. We grew potatoes and tomatoes in the same buckets, thinking that they would do well together because potatoes grow underground and tomatoes grow above ground. As it turned out, the buckets were too cramped and we didn’t get a very good harvest of potatoes or tomatoes but we learned from the experience.
We had been talking about how we wanted to live our lives. We were living on Long Island (NY) at the time and house hunting. Eventually we realized that we would never be able to live the lives we wanted on Long Island because land was too expensive and we didn’t make enough money. At the time, Eric was a full-time college professor of mathematics at a community college and LeeAnn was a full-time medical biller. We both wanted to have a large yard with a big garden, an orchard, berry bushes, chickens and honey bees. We spent the summer of 2009 house hunting in Pennsylvania and finally found our home at the end of the summer. We prioritized the land above the house because we are outdoor people. LeeAnn was mostly responsible for getting the garden started in the Spring when she would drive to our Pennsylvania home by herself or with a friend on weekends because Eric had to work too much to come with her most of the time.
The Scope of Our Current Garden
We quit our jobs and relocated to Pennsylvania in June of 2010. Eric changed careers to become a real estate agent and LeeAnn got another job as a medical biller. In the beginning we planted some of our favorite annuals (need to be replanted each year) but prioritized planting fruit trees, bushes and perennials; the plants that would be there year after year producing food for us. Our property had come with a few fruit trees but we planted a lot more to make our present orchard which contains apples, pears, cherries, plumbs, figs, apricots, peaches, mulberries, witch hazel, hawthorn and almonds. We took into account pollination requirements, pest and disease resistance, and ease of growing when selecting our trees.
We also removed a lot of bushes around the house and turned our property into an edible landscape. We planted kiwis, juneberries, lingonberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, roses, gooseberries, grapes, Jerusalem artichokes, ground nuts, cranberries, an autumn olive and a high bush cranberry bush. We built raised garden beds and sunken garden beds. We established a strawberry patch, a row of asparagus, numerous perennials (come back year after year) along with the traditional annual garden crops, too numerous to list.
We planted medicinal and companion plants, plants for our honeybees, plants to attract and retain beneficial insects, and plants to repel pests. We set up rain barrels and a compost area. The compost area grew a few times over the years. We had drastically underestimated the space we would need for our compost pile in the beginning. We built our “chicken fortress” to protect our chickens from predators and got our first chickens. Neither of us had chickens previously; so we read a book and spoke with people who had experience with chickens before we got them. We also joined a few honey bee clubs and organizations. Eric took a beekeeping course and we got started with honeybees.
We added a bat house, a blue bird house and created homes for toads and frogs; mainly for pest management (in addition to wanting to help the bats, bluebirds, toads and frogs anyway). We added humming bird feeders and a bird bath. We included some things for aesthetic reasons. Having plants and pretty things for the sake of their beauty is especially important to LeeAnn. She calls them food for her soul. However, we prioritized useful plants over ornamental plants; we focused on plants that could provide us with food, medicine and other useful materials (we also pursue an interest in bushcraft).
A Perpetual Growth Process
Throughout this process we were (and still are) constantly educating ourselves. We have been learning from our experiences as well as the experiences of others and making changes as we go. We took classes and seminars at the Rodale Institute and with the Berks County Master Gardeners. We read books, networked with other gardeners and farmers, watched videos and movies. Eric typically reads to LeeAnn while she works in the kitchen. We have read many, many books this way and have learned a lot in the process. We have come a very long way since our first two-bucket garden together and we are continuing to evolve and seek new learning experiences.
Through his business as a real estate agent, Eric met Lori, a Shumei member who introduced him to Shumei Natural Agriculture. Eric and LeeAnn ate it up. The teachings of Mokichi Okada simply resonated with our souls. We had always avoided harmful chemicals, frankenfoods (GMO’s) and even hybrid plants and seeds. [Many plants are hybridized for features that are valued by the general consumer, like flower size or color and bigger, longer blooms. Unfortunately much hybridization has reduced the medicinal and nutritive properties of plants as well as the amounts of nectar and pollen produced and sometimes leaves the resulting plant completely sterile and useless to bees and other pollinators. When selecting plants, we believe traditional varieties are best, rather than the highly cultivated, extra-frilly types.] Also, we avoid plants that have been cultivated using neonicotinoid pesticides. We use drinking water safe hoses (Gatorhyde) to avoid exposing our plants to the lead contained in normal garden hoses. However, we never realized that there was an entire system of agriculture beyond organic. Shumei has helped us to draw spiritually closer to our plants and animals. Shumei is taking us to a higher level, and we are very grateful for that.
Thanks to Shumei, we are now more aware and in-tune with the spiritual aspects of our garden, which we feel benefits our garden as well as us. We see the plants more as conscious beings that we can interact with on more levels and try to be more open and aware of their needs and to receiving what they are transmitting to us (like “please water me!” or “this pot is too small for me”). We are also more aware of how our thoughts and emotions effect the plants and the quality of the food we eat in turn. We are more aware of the interconnectedness of all life and how what we think, feel and do effects everything else which then reflects back to us. We know that stopping to say “You’re beautiful!” to a plant or letting a plant know that we care about it actually makes a difference to the plant and to us.
Gardening is not Just Time Spent in the Garden
Having a large garden requires time and energy outside of the garden as well. We learned how to save seeds as well as how to preserve the harvest. LeeAnn learned how to can and makes a delicious variety of jams and tomato sauce now. We keep records of what we grow (to learn, improve and keep track of seeds), plan, maintain and repair tools (oil and sharpen pruners [EZ KUT are the best we know of] and scythes, clean tools, we had to rebuild our wheelbarrow recently, etc.), trade/buy seeds, start plants indoors and in our home made cold frame, as well as research, make and buy garden tools and supplies.
Why We Do It
As you can imagine, having a large garden consumes a tremendous amount of our time and energy. People ask us why we do it when we could easily buy the foods we need at a local supermarket or farm stands. Why should we work so hard and endure bug bites, bee stings, cuts, scrapes, bruises, sunburn, sleep deprivation (time is always a problem), rodent problems, garden pests (large and small), weeds, crop failures and disappointments when we could otherwise be “having fun.” The answer is that gardening provides us with nourishment on a multitude of levels; it’s not just about being able to eat healthy food although that is a big part of it.
As a child, Eric was always attracted to plants. His grandfather had the first garden Eric ever knew. It was amazing to Eric how his grandfather could plant some seeds and plants would simply grow! Eric could see that they got bigger and bigger every day! These magical plants would even produce food that you could eat! And this food tasted great! It was better than the store bought food. Plants that Eric’s grandfather planted, growing in the garden every day seemed so magical and wonderful. It was just so cool and amazing! That motivated Eric to grow his own plants. “Plants were simply beautiful; particularly if I grew them myself. Growing my own plants gave me great pleasure and satisfaction as a child which carried over into adulthood.” Eric also found that spending time in the garden fostered peace and harmony in his soul.
We don’t like what we are seeing with respect to commercial food production and growing our own food is something we can do about it. We don’t want to eat toxic chemicals. Buying good food is difficult, expensive and you can’t be sure that it was grown the way you would expect. LeeAnn is allergic to some of the pesticides/herbicides/fungicides/protective coatings used on foods and craves a source of pure, healthy food. We found that even when we bought fruits labeled organic, we could still taste chemicals. The only way we could ensure that what we are eating is what we really want to eat is to grow it ourselves. This was a huge motivating factor.
Another very significant factor for us is that we like the sense of balance and relative self-sufficiency we get from living a homesteader type of lifestyle. Gardening is a significant part of it but the bigger picture is that working long hours at jobs with long commutes to earn the money we need to pay professionals to do all our work for us simply does not appeal to us. We feel more capable, well rounded and in balance when we can spend less time earning a paycheck and more of our time maintaining our own cars and mowers, painting our own house, fixing our own plumbing problems … and growing our own food. Thanks to our garden we can afford to make less money and spend less time at a “job” being told what to do in a physically and emotionally toxic environment with people we would never choose to spend time with. Instead, we prefer to invest more of our time learning, growing, becoming more capable and self-sufficient and living a more balanced lifestyle at home with one another enjoying the peace and serenity of our beautiful garden.
We never wrote out any kind of list of advantages versus disadvantages of having a garden before we made the decision to have one. We were just intrinsically motivated to do it so we did. We are not even fully aware of many of the subconscious motivations and benefits that prompted us to have our own garden but we came up with a list because we were asked. Here it is:
Benefits of Gardening:
Healthy, chemical-free, tasty food
Control over our own food and food quality
Decreased dependence on our jobs
Peace of mind about the quality of the food we are eating
Emotional satisfaction of growing our own food
It makes us feel capable
It gives us joy
We like working outside
It gives us a sense of balance in life
We don’t want to be dependent on the food market; gardening gives us a measure of self-sufficiency and independence
Fresh air, sunshine and physical exercise
Gardening helps relieve stress and frustration
We gain spiritual nourishment from being in the garden and working closely with mother earth
Our garden saves us money
Gardening makes us healthier
Having a garden provides economic support to the types of businesses we would like to encourage (organic seed companies, etc.)
Gardening is grounding; it fosters inner peace
It’s a worthwhile activity we enjoy doing together
It’s simply good for our souls
It’s just the way we are wired; it’s natural for us to live close to the earth, in harmony with nature and take an active part in growing our own healthy food and medicine which we need to survive and thrive.
Our property is an oasis of paradise; like the Garden of Eden. If given a choice, wouldn’t you like to live in a beautiful place filled with an abundance of healthy, chemical-free, natural food? You do have some measure of choice; don’t you? Even if you can’t have a large garden of your own, you can support the people who are growing the kind of food you really want to eat by buying their produce. (Ours is not for sale.) Vote for the world that you want for yourself and for your children through how you invest your food money. Help create heaven right here on earth!
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ― Theodore Roosevelt
Books We Recommend:
- The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird
- Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon
- All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
- The Humanure Handbook: A guide to composting human manure, 3rd ed. Joseph Jenkins (everything you need to know about composting; not merely a book about human waste)
- Farmscaping to Enhance Biological Control by Rex Doufour (40 page scientific paper about natural methods of pest management available for free on the internet)
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd ed. by Gail Damerow
- The Beekeeper’s Handbook, 3rd ed. by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide by Rosemary Gladstar
- Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardners by Suzanne Ashworth
- Preserve it Naturally: The Complete Guide to Food Dehydration, 3rd ed. by Excalibur (a company that manufactures high quality dehydrators)
- Ball Blue Book: Guide to Preserving by TMs Ball Corporation (we have the 2009 edition)