Homegrown in the city

“Free! Homegrown, Organic Cucumbers!” If you live in the vicinity of Asheville’s Claxton Elementary, you might have seen this unlikely sign outside a small Murdock Avenue bungalow last summer. You might even have been one of those fortunate wayfarers who took advantage of the offer (made several times) and helped themselves to cukes from the basket set out near the sidewalk. Cool cucumbers are a perfect hot-weather food — witness their popularity in East Indian cuisine. Tom Craig, who grew the cukes, likes them well chilled, dressed with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, fresh herbs (like thyme, oregano or dill) and sour cream or plain yogurt.

The Craig garden sits in a densely populated Asheville neighborhood, a short bike ride from downtown, UNCA and Charlotte Street. Over the past 20 years, Tom and his wife, Anne, have gradually transformed their fenced-in back yard into a lush garden eco-niche. Its centerpiece, which takes up half the backyard space, is a 25-by-25-foot plot of vegetables, flowers and herbs surrounded by a wide grass path — all that’s left of the original lawn. Tom is the vegetable gardener; Anne grows the herbs and flowers. For privacy, they’ve planted trees around the perimeter of the yard.

My gardener/granddaughter, Ivy Rose, especially likes the three 20-foot-tall apple trees along the south side of the garden — their clouds of sweet blossoms in spring and their sweet fruit in the fall. They are heirloom varieties (two Jonathans and a Golden Delicious) planted by Tom as small “whips” 20 years ago.

Tom was the first organic home gardener I ever got to know. His low-key attitude and low-effort, low-tech, low-budget organic strategies encouraged me to consider this kind of gardening. I’d been concerned that organics might be too labor-intensive for a woman my age. I don’t rototill; I don’t even shovel unless the soil is light and fluffy. But I learned from Tom that you don’t have to spend a fortune or overexert yourself to garden organically — it’s not a cookie-cutter practice. There as many ways to garden organically as there are organic gardeners. Tom’s methods are simple: He uses only hand tools, and he doesn’t raise beds or till. Unlike me, however, he does enjoy digging. Instead of making compost piles, he digs holes in the garden and buries small containers of kitchen waste in them. Consequently, his garden is full of happy worms that do much of the tilling and fertilizing.

In autumn, when the three apple trees lose their leaves, Tom rakes them onto his garden, where they compost all winter. In spring, with a shovel, he turns this leaf blanket into the soil. In summer, he mulches with cardboard, newspaper and hay to conserve water and to keep from having to weed — his least-favorite chore growing up in a gardening family in Western Pennsylvania.

Like all organic gardeners, Tom’s always experimenting with ways to enrich his soil, most recently with cover crops. He planted rye last November and turned it under with a shovel when it came up in midspring. Austrian winter pea is the next cover crop he wants to try — a good choice, because the young leaves are delicious in salads.

Tom’s simple soil-building methods seem to be working. Two years ago, after 18 years of cultivating it, he had his soil professionally tested for the first time, and all it needed was a little nitrogen. The pH was fine — probably because, during the years they burned wood, the Craigs regularly added the soil-sweetening ash to their garden.

One of Tom’s goals is always to have something fresh to eat from his own garden — as locally grown as you can get — throughout the growing season. In spring and fall, he plants short rows of lettuces, mizuma, arugula, kale (Black Tuscan this year), spinach, broccoli, snow peas, Italian parsley, cilantro and beets. Now, in early summer, there are pepper and tomato seedlings, hills of zucchini, cucumbers, pattypan squash and edamame soybeans, a popular Japanese finger-food snack — eaten the way Americans eat popcorn at ball games. Tom says the fat pods are delicious boiled with salt for 15 minutes and served with cold beer.

This summer, the Craigs’ garden is also home to a Meyer lemon, an olive tree and a bay tree — all in pots, so they can be taken inside during the winter if necessary (though they’re hardy down to 20 degrees). Herbs include valerian, horseradish, motherwort, a big rosemary “bush” that overwinters, oregano, mountain mint, thyme and basil. There’s plenty of basil for pesto, a frequent summer treat in the Craig household (blended with olive oil, pine nuts, parmesan and garlic).

Tom figures all this abundance costs him about $100 a year (including seeds, mulch, amendments and a new tool or two per season). His lettuce garden — which provides him with daily gourmet, organic salads for several months — might cost $6 at most.

Mouthwatering childhood memories of homegrown lettuce, tomatoes and carrots influenced Tom’s decision to turn his lawn into a garden. He also finds gardening a soothing counterbalance to his high-stress job in the intensive-care unit at Mission St. Joseph’s, where he nurses patients with brain, spinal or nervous-system damage, including victims of wrecks and of violence. Research has shown that just looking at plants can reduce stress, fear and muscle tension. “When you’re angry, dig!” counsels Tom.

To Ivy Rose, though, the Craig garden is sometimes more hilarious than soothing, especially when Tom and Anne are out gardening with their Quaker parrots Ziggy (Anne’s bird) and Zelda (Tom’s) perched on their heads, shoulders or rumps (if they’re bending over). When Tom or Anne laughs, the parrots do too — wildly — right along with them, and soon the whole garden rings with mingled human and nonhuman shrieks of mirth.

Tom became an organic gardener, he says, “because of the environmental benefits, to prove to myself that it could be done, and as an example to others that it could be done.” Many organic philosophies have influenced his personal style, including permaculture techniques (such as trenching kitchen waste directly into the garden). Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution, says Tom, taught him some fundamentals, such as “Be very aware of the big picture when working with Mother Nature,” and “There are ways to garden that are not necessarily scientific but intuitive.” Tom recently took Jim Smith’s small-scale organic-farming course through A-B Tech and found it to be a gold mine of information on launching a small-scale business — which Tom would like to do someday on land he owns in Madison County.

For now, though, he’s giving away his extra produce. So if you fancy cucumbers and find yourself in the vicinity of Murdock Avenue in late July or August, slow down and stay alert, just in case the Craigs are trying to get rid of another glut of cucumbers. (Last year’s freebies were General Lee cukes, by the way, from one Tom’s favorite seed sources, Fedco.)

Ivy Rose, meanwhile, wonders: “What if everyone on Murdock Avenue had food gardens with a surplus of something and put up a sign saying ‘Free produce! Take some!’ No one on that street would ever starve!”

[Victoria Maddux tends her garden in a mountain cove near Asheville.]

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