Gardens for the Body and Soul: Abundance Flows from One Small Yard
New York Times
June 28, 2001
By Anne Raver
Piermont, N.Y.—More than 30 years ago, Joan Dye Gussow, a nutritionist at Columbia Teachers College who has trained a generation of chefs and gardeners to think globally and eat locally, decided the only responsible way to eat was to know the source of the food. “How else could we make sure its producers and their land was being preserved?” Ms. Gussow, 72, asked recently as she pulled weeds in the riverside garden here, which supplies her with herbs, fruit and vegetables year-round. “And we couldn’t know where food came from, I figured, unless it was grown closer to home.”
But such ideas seemed absurd to her colleagues, who, like most Americans, have grown up on bananas, pineapples and rice flown in from all corners of the world.
“How to do it seemed mysterious even to me,” she says. “So I decided I had to do it myself.”
How she did it, along with her husband, Alan, is told in This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader,published this month by Chelsea Green ($22.95), a passionate tale of house building and gardening as floods, droughts, insects and vermin periodically devastated their crops. (The Gussows were determined to live on their own and locally grown food—only occasionally turning to bags of tortilla chips and grapefruit from Florida.)
After growing potatoes and battling skunks for 36 years in Congers, N.Y., and raising two sons who eventually grew up and left the rambling Victorian house, they went looking for land in this old mill town on the edge of the Hudson River. Alan, an artist, longed for river light; Joan, the farmer, wanted a sunny piece of delta. And 10 years ago, when they saw the ramshackle Odd Fellows Hall, a few feet from the pavement of the main road, they knew they had found the place. “It was not pretty,” Ms. Gussow said. “It was up to its neck in concrete. And there were all these droopy telephone wires running out from the front of the house. The floor tipped seriously in one direction. People thought we were crazy.
But the site was spectacular. Behind the house, the long, narrow backyard stretched to the Hudson, with plenty of changing light for an artist and rich black soil for a gardener. Neighter was thinking of flood plains.
A few days after they signed the purchase agreement, in December 1992, a northeaster sent a 100-year flood crashing into their future home. Nonetheless, they proceeded. A year later, a carpenter and his crew were preparing to raise the house two feet—above the next flood—when he declared the 150-year-old structure so rotten it had to be razed. The Gussows built a new house.
So it goes, in a tale with enough plagues and pestilence to furnish a new book of the Bible. “Growing my own food has taught me a whole lot about what farmers go through,” she said. “To eat imported, out-of-season produce removes us completely from an awareness of the seasons, and of the producers—on ongoing consciousness of our partnership with nature.”
She and her husband, who died in 1994, planted sweet potatoes even before taking possession of the house, without digging up the old sod. Instead, they just mowed the grass, layered it with newspapers and mounds of clippings to keep the weeds down, and stuck the rooted cuttings into the sod.
“They muscle their way though,” Ms. Gussow said as she led the way down the wide grassy path leading like a spine to the water, with 11 raised beds radiating in ribs to either side. The garden was a lush mosaic of poppies, burgeoning tomato plants, eggplants and peppers, ripening snap peas, deep-green spinach, thick clover, fruit trees, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and raspberries that bear both early and late.
That first sweet potato harvest yielded orange tubers riddled with wireworms, which thrive, they learned, in soggy soil under sod. These days, Ms. Gussow grows her white potatoes—Bintje, French fingerlings, Yellow Finn—in fertile earth and compost encased in garbage bags to keep them from rotting in the soggy soil. In the fall she goes around collecting bags of leaves from the neighbors. It is the ultimate recycling: the leaves become mulch, and the bags are perfect for potatoes.
Her book recounts exquisite moments of tasting peaches, warm form the sun, right off the tree. Of snap peas so delicious, the guests hardly had room for her grilled andouille sausage and sweet potato salad (those recipes and others are in the book).
She stopped to glare at the pea vines that had been eaten down to the ground by a woodchuck that keeps evading her trap. In her book, Ms. Gussow tells not only how to make paths but also how to drown a possum that has eaten its way through the peas, the broccoli, the parsnips and green beans. As one committed to living off the land, she believes in “facing my killing head on.”
“We’re all killers,” Ms. Gussow writes. “We do it either personally or though surrogates, but we simply can’t avoid the fact that, if we eat, killing is being done on our behalf.” She means not only killing a steer for steak, but more insidious phenomena that might be ignore: farmworkers being poisoned by pesticides, small farms failing, hogs cruelly raised on corporate farms.
“When I read about a sow being kept in a crate so short she couldn’t even lie straight, I can’t participate,” Ms. Gussow said. “Even to the extent of my pound of sausage every six months, I can’t do it.”
Until her husband died from cancer, he dispatched critters for her—30 skunks one summer in Congers. But now she faces the joys and tragedies of gardening alone.
“He loved to make compost, the physical, hard, exhausting work,” said Ms. Gussow, who was more inclined to stake the tomatoes, weed the miner’s lettuce, plant the peas on time. “He loved the garden.”
Her husband abstracted the colors and movement of nature into brilliant pastels, getting down on the floor and rubbing the chalks with his fingers into vibrant works like “Three Bees Sleeping on a Sunflower” and “Wrapping the Fig,” which captures, as his wife writes, “then energetic delight of wrapping one’s arms around a pliant tree, binding it into a column and swathing it for protection form the winter’s blasts.”
She began wrapping it after he died.
“His death was so sudden, I remember writing in my journal, ‘I can’t do this myself. This life is meant for two people,’” she said. “But it turned out I could. One of the great things Alan gave me, was he allowed me to be a strong woman.”