Country Living in the City

Guest Post by Clara Lee Sharrard

We live in an old Victorian home on a 50 x 125 foot lot in Springfield, MA. As I look around the yard, I am amazed at how many different foods we are managing to grow in this small amount of space. I sometimes hear people claim that they live in the suburbs because they need a big yard to be able to do anything with it. Taking an inventory of what I’ve got on my small patch of land, I’m not sure I agree.

A few years ago we replaced the privet hedge that divides our yard from our neighbors to the south with a tomato patch (it was the only place sunny enough to grow tomatoes). We have about 20 tomato plants of different varieties crowded in there and about 10 additional plants either in pots or in other parts of the yard. These are doing great this year and are loaded with green tomatoes. The first ones are just starting to ripen and we are looking forward to a bumper crop to both enjoy and to share with our neighbors.

Along that side of the house, I have an herb garden containing parsley, sage, thyme, tarragon, oregano, basil, and chives. We have several pots of rosemary in the backyard. I plant it in pots so I can bring it in for the winter and enjoy fresh rosemary year round. I also planted a few thyme plants among the flowers growing along the driveway. I plan to dig up a couple of these to bring in and try to keep alive for the winter. The basil is growing well and should provide lots of pesto to freeze for later use.

Between our driveway and our neighbors to the north, there’s only about a foot of growing space, but we’ve made the most of that small area by turning it into a blackberry bramble. i guess we are fortunate that there are also vines on our neighbor’s side of the fence so they don’t complain about the unruly throng growing there. (Of course, we’re just returning the favor of being able to eat from the cherries that load the tree on their side of the property line earlier in the summer!) I have just been out in my backyard picking fresh blackberries from these vines, and the taste of a freshly picked, succulent blackberry still warm from the sun can’t be beat!

At the beginning of the season when we don’t have too many, we put add a little sugar and enjoy them spooned over vanilla ice cream or on cereal. As the season progresses, we get enough of a harvest that I can make blackberry sorbet—and even have some surplus that I freeze for later use—either for more sorbet or to make jelly.

I planted a few leaf lettuce plants with the flowers and they have provided many meals of salads. Our bell and cayenne pepper plants are looking good and have lots of blossoms with the promise of many peppers in the near future. Last year we had a butternut squash plant come us as a volunteer from the compost in the garden. We gave it free reign of the backyard and were rewarded with 5 large squash. I tried a couple different recipes for roasting them with very good results.

We are lucky because, in addition to our own harvest, we live within walking distance of a weekly farmers’ market. My friend and I have been walking there weekly to stock up on local produce, milk, and yogurt. Not only do we get produce, bread, milk, plants, and other locally produced items; but also some exercise and a chance to catch up with our neighbors and friends who also shop there. If I can’t get what I want there, there are lots of good farm stands within a 10 to 15 minute drive from our house.

This week I’m looking forward to the annual trip to purchase wild blueberries from a farm about 30 miles from here. They have a family business that harvests, cleans, and boxes the small wild low bush blueberries. These are wonderful and make the best muffins and cakes. They are small and very sweet. I always buy a 20 pound box and spread the berries on cookie sheets to freeze and then package the berries in plastic bags. They are like little marbles and you can pour out just the amount you need for a recipe. My experience is that by taking the extra step to freeze them on the cookie sheet, there is less moisture and they don’t discolor the batter as much.

On the way back we will stop by an orchard to see if the first peaches and apples of the season are ready. There will be multiple trips there this fall as the different varieties of peaches and apples get ripe. It’s a bit of a drive but we enjoy going there because it is a small family run farm and the man who owns it has been in business for many years. I just hope that someone will continue to run the farm when he is no longer able to do the work.

I mentioned already that our neighbors have a couple cherry trees that are along the fence between our yards. This year we weren’t fast enough to get many cherries. A flock of cedar waxwings came in and cleaned out most of the cherries just before they reached full maturity. I was disappointed to miss out on the cherries, but I did enjoy watching these beautiful birds that I had never had the privilege of seeing until they attacked the cherries—as well as a Baltimore oriole and a red-bellied woodpecker who also came by and ate their share of the fruit.

Locally grown produce is definitely better than anything you can buy in the store and growing it yourself is a step above that. Not only can you enjoy your harvest in the freshest state possible, but you get a chance to personally experience the progression of the foods through the seasons. We don’t have a lot of space but we do try to take advantage of the space we have and get as much produce as possible from the yard.

All photos by Clara Lee Sharrard

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9 Responses to “Country Living in the City”

  1. shreela Says:

    Hi Clara, lovely post!

    So different varieties of tomatoes can be planted near each other without concern of getting mixed up genetically? I’ve read corn is bad about getting mixed up with other varieties of corn, but don’t know if that applies to all veggies/grains.

    Your blackberries are next to your driveway? How often does your car pass them? Also, are they the non-thorn kind? We have wild brambling blackberries in the field next to us, and ever since I brought home a small bowl, hubby’s been out there yearly — he LOVES blackberries. But the thorns aren’t the biggest problem; there’s snakes in that field after rains, often poisonous! Thankfully he grew up around snakes, and knows to wear
    jeans and boots, and carries a stick or my walking cane. He used a stick to protect himself against a copperhead once! Thank goodness for the field cats me and the neighbors feed, because they’re better at catching the snakes than us humans LOL.

    So, I’d rather have bushes in the yard of course. They don’t even have to be thornless, because some neighbors are lax about their dogs getting out, and they’ve jumped our fence quite a few times hoping to get the rabbits (their cages are hanging from the boat shed rafters now LOL). But if blackberries could help keep out roaming pitt bull packs, they’d serve two purposes.

    Hope to see more of your posts Clara 8^)

  2. Clara Lee Says:

    I know that corn cross pollinates but I don’t think tomatoes do. At least, I’ve never had that issue with mine. My biggest problem is forgetting how big the plants grow and having them so close together that they don’t get enough sunlight.

    The blackberries are definitely wild and have LOTS of thorns. We tie them up when they lean over too far. The blackberry bushes might really help with the dog problem. It takes them a few years to get going but once they become established, you can easily get too many. Blackberries only bear on the canes one year–the second year of their existence. The first year they come up in the spring and grow for the entire summer. The next year they blossom (they are truly beautiful) and bear fruit. As soon as they have finished bearing fruit, you can cut them out because they will just die anyhow and by thinning the patch, you give next year’s bushes more room to grow.

    If you do decide to try growing blackberry bushes, snip the top off of the new growth when it reaches about 4 feet tall. This will cause the bush to branch and thus produce more fruit the following year.

    Personally I don’t do snakes and won’t go anywhere near where they might be no matter how much I may want the food growing there!

    Good luck with getting a blackberry patch established in your yard.

  3. jim Says:

    I just did a little checking, and it appears that cross-pollination of tomatoes is an issue only if you want to keep your seeds for the next year’s garden. It’s the next generation that would be impacted.

  4. jwsharrard Says:

    correction 7/30/08—it was a red-bellied woodpecker that ate the cherries. Post updated to reflect that.

  5. Shreela Says:

    Testing, testing, so Jim won’t have to post my comments via email anymore 8^)
    I’m using my gmail address instead of my yahoo address. I’m using the same website as before: wordpress.

    OOPS! I’m still spam using Gmail/Wordpress. Now I’ll try leaving off my website.

    Thanks all for answers about whether tomatoes cross-pollinate. Other than my 6 poorly-performing tomatoes, I missed planting this season due to health reasons. But now that’s resolved, and I’ll be trying again our 2nd season somewhere around September.

    Clara - I’ll be searching online to see where I can get blackberry bushes. It would eventually give us enough berries that he didn’t have to go into snake territory, while keeping out those blasted dob packs that occasionally get out of their backyards.

  6. Shreela Says:

    I made it through! Apparently Spam Karma2 doesn’t like wordpress.

  7. Leah Says:

    Hi Clara,
    I enjoyed this post so much as I grew up in the South end and then Forest Park sections of Springfield. I like to read the blog, of course for the content, but also because of all the familiar places that are mentioned. Over the past 70 years I have lived in Springfield, W. Springfield, Westfield, Westhampton and now Cape Cod.
    We’ve grown food in our yards for 50+ years ranging from small plots like yours to 6 1/2 acres in Westhampton with two large gardens, goats, pigs, and chickens. The current garden is 4′ by 30′ and amazing we can feed two from it.
    Also garden in SW FL in the winter and I can tell you firsthand that red bellied woodpeckers also love oranges and grapefruit and can hollow them out quickly.
    Regards, Leah

  8. Florida Fruit Says:

    Loved your blackberry photo. Living down here in Florida we have blackberry bushes that grow wild everywhere. During June we typically wander out into our back yard with my kids and begin picking blackberries. After about 30 minutes we all have lightly blue fingertips and “Sampled” more than our fair share of this succulent berry.

    I’m glad you’re using making good use of the yard you have. More people should follow your lead.

    Fruit Scientist

  9. Buy Oranges Says:

    We always buy oranges during the citrus season to help alleviate the winter blues… I relate it to the blackberries because they always remind that summer is here!

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