Saturday, June 5, 2010

Urban homesteading?

Except for some herbs and the occasional tomato, I've pretty much given up on growing food plants here, mostly because the sun is inconsistent in our yard. It's a sunny backyard, but it's a small amount of real estate, and the neighboring trees, houses, and other structures prevent constant sunlight, which is critical in producing good veggies.

Another reason I've given up on food plants is because some of the ones I've chosen in the past are greedy for territory, and that attitude won't fly in my small space. I had a small blackberry bush that I kept in a large bucket at the house we rented, back in 2003 . When we moved to Trenton, I thought it would be nice to give this healthy, though non-producing, fruit bush a permanent home in our back corner. Our first full summer here, 2005, it had grown significantly, but didn't offer any fruit. In 2006, I didn't notice any real change, though we did get a few berries. In 2007, a large part of my backyard was covered with thorny growth, and plenty of berries. I realized I was going to have to micromanage — which isn't my style – my blackberry bushes, or else the yard would become a thicket. I started digging up the newer plants. I continued this process in 2008, but had enough of it by 2009 — the seedy, yet delicious, berries were not worth the constant vigilance to keep the brambles from invading our little yard. So, last summer, I showed no mercy and eliminated all the blackberry growth I found. This is a difficult, and to this day, ongoing, task, as this sort of vegetation spreads underground and doesn't need much light or water.

We had new neighbors last summer. Promising new neighbors. One day while I was annihilating blackberry plants, the wife was in the backyard tending a very small, but successful pepper crop. She was looking at my blackberry brambles with a bit of sad longing, I think. She didn't speak English, but seemed very friendly, nodding and pointing to the bushes. So, I left a couple spindly thorny arms near the fence, hoping they'd cascade into her yard in the future. I was also digging up some mint and lemon balm — two other very successful edible plants — because they began rudely popping up in less than ideal spots around my yard. I was planning to just toss those into my compost barrel, but instead put some of them in pots, leaned over my fence, and asked my neighbor if she'd like them. "Si! Si!" She said enthusiastically, and immediately dug a couple of holes and planted her new herbs. "Gracias!" she said.

I was happy that she could use some of my extras. And throughout last summer, I saw her occasionally picking some mint or lemon balm, and bringing it back inside. They're great for teas, or marinades, or garnishes.

Then, one particularly swampy day last August, we noticed our neighbor and her sons on their front porch, fanning themselves. They had window air conditioners, so we couldn't understand why they'd be out in such oppressive heat. One of the guys came over and explained that one of brothers was responsible for paying the electric bill, and he hadn't. The power was shut off. And, could they run a power cord from our house to theirs so they could turn on the air conditioning in just one room?

It was awkward, and agonizing. Glen and I didn't want them to roast. During that particular heatwave, even the nights were uncomfortable, and we could only imagine what they were going through. But, we had to say no — it's not legal, and it's so dangerous to run electric cords between houses, especially for high powered appliances. In old buildings.

It wasn't long before they were gone, possibly because the house was too hot to live in, or more likely, because the same brother made off with the rent money. We don't know. The landlord is totally insane, and told one thing to one neighbor, and another to a different neighbor, and no longer comes around these days anyway.

The house is currently in foreclosure, and we have mixed feelings about our lack of neighbors next door. Our yard feels more private, as do the rooms along that side of our house. And it's SO quiet. But now that neighboring property is not maintained. Glen periodically trims the grass, and another neighbor removes the junk mail from the porch. There's a significant amount of structural damage to the carport in the back, due to the heavy snow earlier this year, and I've seen the feral cats go in and out of the basement door, which, inexplicably, is open. And, guess what else? The blackberries, lemon balm, and mint in that backyard are out of control. It barely qualifies as a yard, actually, as most of the back property is a driveway/carport. But that patch of grass between their driveway and our backyard is well on its way to reverting to woodlands, or a meadow, or something in between.

It's all my fault, too. It happens to be blackberry season, so I figured I'd make the most of the abandoned plants, and I plucked everything I could reach from my side of the fence, and easily harvested a pint of berries. Matthew is just starting to show signs of food preferences, and at first rejected my offering. He splashed around (nude) in his little pool, got out, and played with his trains. As he rolled Thomas and James around my makeshift outdoor coffee table, he grew more curious about the little bucket of berries in front of him. He took one, at first tentatively, looked at it, rolled it between his fingers, deemed it edible, and popped it in his mouth. "Mmmmm!!" he exclaimed, and he proceeded to eat all but four berries in the little bucket. He looked like a nude vampire.

 Matthew, devourer of blackberries.

Earlier this year, I saw one of the local dirtbags casually walk into the abandoned yard and fill up a large bucket of water, so he could wash his car. I don't like the dirtbags that close to me, and I dislike it even more when they get away with dirtbaggery on my watch.  So, the next day, I put a lock on the fence. Tomorrow, I'm headed over with a key to harvest some more blackberries, and take a closer look at my wayward plants. They'll have to be destroyed soon or else they'll take over, but not without a fight from the mint and lemon balm, which will also need to go. If you want any of this stuff for your yard, let me know. Obviously, all three species are vigorous and will easily take over if not watched closely. If you're up for it, it's great to have fresh berries and herbs. Let me know.


Anonymous said...

Blackberries are indeed messy plants but they are soooo delicious!! Have any extras that your little blacberry vampire doesn't eat and the Clean household would love some!

Captain Har said...

Having cut down all of my trees some 20 years ago;they were the worlds ugliest trees and living next to a bank parking lot, I am able to grow quite a crop of veggies. I just finished my spring salad greens and I have many heads of green leaf lettuce and romaine.I expect that by July I will have more cucumbers then I can use.I have Roma tomatoes with little fruit starting to pop out. I have 5 variations of the pepper family, and all plants are bearing their assorted sweetness and heat.I also have many herbs.My fav is the large and ever expanding mint crop that keeps me in Mojitos for most of the summer.Now if I could only grow sugar cane.LOL