Homegrown in the city

In midsummer, it can take a long time to walk the short distance from the street to Montford gardener Daisy Johanson‘s front porch. First you have to bask awhile in the sunrise shades of the gaillardia, Stella d’Oro lilies and golden yarrow that border the walkway. Then, halfway up the short flight of steps, you have to pause again — this time to nibble.

Stone platforms — each supporting a big pot containing an unstaked Sweet 100 cherry-tomato plant — flank the steps. By midsummer, the sprawling plants are heavy with fruit. My gardener/granddaughter, Ivy Rose, says Daisy’s front yard is like a giant welcome mat.

For 45 years, Daisy has created gardens of all sizes in locations as diverse as New Jersey; Florida; Madison County, N.C.; and Asheville’s Montford community (where she lives now). Before her husband died, Daisy grew almost all their produce in Madison County, with enough to freeze for the winter. Her first home in Montford had no suitable site to grow food, but like most organic gardeners, Daisy’s a problem-solver. She grew Honeyoye strawberries here and there among the perennials at the top of the steep bank she’d made into a rock garden. “There’s always a place to grow something,” she observes. “I’d hop from rock to rock picking strawberries, a couple of quarts at a time.” She also took advantage of the MAGIC community garden right in her neighborhood to grow more food.

In the summer of 2000, Daisy faced the daunting task of “taming” her second Montford yard — a jungle of briars, blackberries, goldenrod, wild shrubs, empty lawn and vines. “The first summer I was here, I did nothing but cut vines,” she recalls. “There were seven kinds: potato, wild grape and clematis, Virginia creeper, honeysuckle, English ivy and poison ivy!”

But three summers later, it’s hard to imagine such chaos. For the most part, serenity and order reign. Along one fence line there’s a quiet border of rosy Shirley poppies, pastel Asiatic day lilies, and larkspur in shades of deep blue, white, pink and lavender. In the middle of the lawn are four 20-by-4-foot raised beds, neatly laid out and surrounded by walls of unmortared brick meticulously stacked by Daisy. There’s what Ivy Rose calls the “grape bush,” a carefully controlled Concord grapevine pruned into a 2-foot-high, roughly spherical shape. Its healthy leaves conceal a jackpot of maturing grapes.

I guess it’s not surprising that Daisy uses Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening principles to plan her vegetable gardens. In winter, after the garden shuts down, her creative spirit turns to quilting — serious quilting. Last year, Daisy won first place in the Large Pieced Quilt category at the Asheville Quilt Show, and she followed that up with Best Quilt in Show at the Mountain State Fair. “Daisy’s good at thinking in squares,” notes Ivy Rose.

But the vegetable beds are the only straight edges in the garden; the rest of it winds and flows. The mulched path that separates Daisy’s larkspur/lily border from the lawn is gently curved and protected from grass invasion by a flexible plastic landscape edging, installed in a narrow, 6-inch-deep trench — deeper than the grass’s roots. It’s inexpensive, comes in 20- and 40-foot lengths, and is available at local hardware superstores.

Three of the five raised beds planned for the yard are finished and thick with summer produce. A fourth bed has just been built — using hand tools. “You don’t need a tiller in a small home garden,” says Daisy. After her 17-year-old grandson removed the sod and cultivated the plot with a shovel, Daisy laid the brick walls herself. For the rest of this gardening season, she’ll work on removing every trace of nut sedge in the new bed and improving soil fertility. “I might grow peanuts in this bed next year,” she muses. “I adore boiled peanuts.” It’s also a wise organic choice, since peanuts are a nitrogen-producing legume.

Daisy fertilizes her raised beds with frequent additions of organic matter: her own compost, leaves from the city leaf dump, and grass clippings — which she also uses as mulch — from her unsprayed lawn. She doesn’t worry about pH; “If there’s enough humus, plants are happy,” she maintains.

Organic gardening, says Daisy, is really nothing new — it’s simply common sense. She wasn’t about to raise children who couldn’t wander and graze freely in their home garden for fear of being poisoned. And she was hooked on the incomparable taste of homegrown organic produce — as fresh and locally grown as you can get.

A male and a female kiwi, which take five to seven years to fruit, are slowly covering the chainlink fence in front of Daisy’s house. The Fingerlakes peach tree in the back garden — a northern variety — has blossoms that can weather a spring frost. The 4-year-old tree bore a single peach its second year and 22 peaches last year. This summer’s bounty is still developing.

The Early Glo strawberries, grown in one of the raised beds, have already come and gone. Now, in midsummer, other raised-bed occupants include Whopper tomatoes (because walnut trees grow near the garden, and Whoppers are resistant to walnut blight ), Edamame soybeans, a pattypan squash, bush beans (grown from thinnings another gardener gave Daisy), seven different colors of bell peppers, and plenty of purple okra.

If Daisy weren’t a seed-saver, she might not be growing purple okra this year (which she loves for its taste and because it stays tender even when large). This year, it wasn’t offered by Parks, her longtime favorite seed source. Fortunately , she had some 3-year-old seed saved that germinated. To save okra seed, she tags the first pod that appears on a healthy plant. After the plant dies, she removes the seed from the pod and stores it.

One of Daisy’s most treasured food memories of growing up in Mississippi is crisp, Southern-fried homegrown okra. Even people like Ivy Rose (who won’t generally eat okra because of the slime) love it. Daisy shakes the sliced pods in a bag with cornmeal and a little salt, dumps everything (including the cornmeal that didn’t stick to the okra) into a little hot oil in a skillet, covers it, cooks it over low heat for five minutes, then removes the lid and continues frying, stirring occasionally. When the okra begins to get crisp and nutty-flavored, she cooks it for just a few minutes more, stirring constantly.

That unbeatable homegrown flavor has inspired many folks to try growing some vegetables. When Daisy’s neighbor (who grew flowers exclusively) would drop in on her during the summer months, they would sit on the front steps and gobble Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. This year, the neighbor is growing her own.

“There should be awards given to people who inspire other people to grow their own food,” proclaims Ivy Rose (who’s been inspired by Daisy to grow okra).

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

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