Suburban Homesteader—Taylor Wheat
By Elizabeth Johnson
“Why would you want to stand in line at the grocery store when
you can pick vegetables among birds and butterflies?”
Taylor Wheat's son in a school essay
Broccoli, sunflowers, beets, cilantro, hummingbird sage, fava beans, banana and lemon trees, mint, raspberries, poppies, lavender, borage OH MY!! How can one person change the world? We change the world when we change ourselves. We change ourselves when we grow what we eat. We change what we eat when we watch it grow. When we watch the plant unfold and blossom under our care, we are changed and charged with the great adventure of life—its magnificent beauty and generosity.
Eight years ago, Taylor Wheat and her husband Michael Amescua followed a well-trodden path from an urban apartment rental to their American Dream of home ownership. They carried with them the inspired homesteading ideals of Taylor’s lifelong heroes, Helen and Scott Nearing, pioneers of the 1930s “back to the land movement.” The Nearings’ Vermont farm experiment became a mecca for a new Depression era generation seeking self-reliance and healthy life styles.
“We were seeking an affirmation,—a way of conducting
ourselves, of looking at the world and taking part in its activities
that would provide at least a minimum of those values which we
considered essential to the good life. As we saw it, such values
must include: simplicity, freedom from anxiety or tension, an
opportunity to be useful, and to live harmoniously. Simplicity,
serenity, utility and harmony are not the only values in life, but
they are among the important ideals….”
- Living the Good Life by Scott and Helen Nearing 1932
Taylor and Michael did not find the farm acreage that formed her deeper dream, but they did find an affordable one-fifth acre in a suburban neighborhood near Vandenburg Air Force Base. The comfortable single story tract home sat among others like it, all built in a manner efficient, profitable, and attractive for its day. The neighborhood was intended for families following the common American script—get a job, buy a home, raise a family, and keep an orderly and trimmed front yard. Taylor and Michael moved to the suburbs, raised a son, and rewrote the script to reflect their own version of a healthy life style. The house and yard designs were never intended to be a small-scale farm operation or center of economic self-sustenance but it became those things with Taylor’s dedicated efforts. The fifth acre suburban homestead has become an income producing food forest/farm that continues to expand every year. She now sells fruit, berries, eggs, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and beeswax candles at her local Farmers’ Market.
Their house occupies half of the property square footage; the remaining areas are about equally split between front and back gardens. Though the front yard is planted with fruit trees and berry bushes, they chose to maintain a modest garden design that fits in easily with neighboring properties, passing as a normal, suburban front yard. They intend to carefully plan this garden space to keep peace on the street. Taylor now envisions the property as a three-dimensional space with usable planting areas on exterior walls, the roof, and even above. Before meeting her, I wondered just what it was in people that moved them not just to garden, but to farm in the city or suburbs. I received no answer beyond a tour inside one devoted individual’s personal dream made material.
“Our second purpose was to make a living under conditions that
would preserve and enlarge joy in workmanship, would give a sense
of achievement, thereby promoting integrity and self-respect; would
assure a large measure of self-sufficiency and thus make it more
difficult for civilization to impose restrictive and coercive economic
pressures, and make it easier to guarantee the solvency of the
enterprise.” - the Nearings 1932
The food forest garden style takes companion planting to a whole new level where each plant is given new life by the city of plants around it. Some go to seed and come up wherever they can find room to thrive and some go to feed the chickens—Brahma and Shirley—living comfortably in their protected 200 square foot pen. The garden hives produce bees that are well-fed on the many flower varieties available.
The backyard garden began with a small swimming pool for the baby. When he outgrew the pool, Taylor made a raised bed garden that is now host to beans and peas with an understory of beets, onion, lettuce arugula, parsley, and kale. The 80 year old apricot tree provided a shady play area and swing. Additional raised beds, chicken pen, assortment of fruit trees, birdhouses, bentwood garden sculpture from tree prunings, bee hives, and mini-nursery all found a place to occupy. Instead of feeling crowded, the back yard gardens feel large and spacious in their complexity, the journey through them a labyrinth of discovery and surprise.
Compost and horse manure amendments to the native sandy loam soil created beds one by one. Peach and lemon trees now frame the largest raised vegetable bed of potatoes, carrots, peas, and volunteer greens. The main compost area is adjacent and surrounded by borage, purple sweetpeas, and raspberries that climb the cedar fence behind the bed. Along the stucco house wall, sweet corn, lamb’s quarter, and an orange tree thrive. The orange and soon-to-be-planted fig will be espaliered on the wall.
On the north side of the house, at the edge of a concrete sidewalk with the usual trash and recycle rolling bins, Nehoe Farms raspberries and an avocado tree grow next to fresh kitchen compost and a bin for seaweed tea. A small fountain-centered side garden of calla lilies, nasturtiums and potted guavas also serves as the family pet graveyard. Beyond the spa, roses, iris, feverfew, giant red mustard, plaintains, nasturtium, and a persimmon tree grow along the fence.
Our third aim was leisure during a considerable portion of each day,
month or year, which might be devoted to avocational pursuits free
from the exacting demands of bread labor, to satisfying and fruitful
association with one’s fellows, and to individual and group efforts
directed toward social improvement.” - the Nearings 1932
If several houses in the neighborhood follow Taylor’s inspired path, they could create their own local “grocery store” on just one street. Different fruit trees could be planted in each front yard, with herbs to share as a pharmacy. Vegetable and seed crops could rotate around the neighborhood to replenish soils bordered by pavement.
To celebrate our talk and tour, Taylor and I cruised the garden picking vegetables and fruit for a “you can’t get it fresher” garden salad with strawberries. The feta cheese was the only ingredient not grown on site, but give her a couple more years and Taylor might be making cheese on her one-fifth acre farm. She inspires me in so many ways, not least of which is her affinity for beauty and diversity of shape, color, and texture. Her farm informs mind, body and spirit and feeds mind, body, and spirit.
26 July 2011
San Luis Obispo
For more information and photos and products for sale, please visit: http://www.suburbanhomesteader.com