Homegrown in North Turkey Creek

Rachel Clearfield’s gardens sit high up on Pinnacle Knob in a hollow with a stream running through it. There’s a wonderful view of mountains to the south and east. Bathed in light all morning long, it’s the perfect eco-niche for an artist who paints the sensual, seasonal energies of Southern Appalachian landscapes.

Rachel’s love of nature is reflected not only in her art but in her joyful determination to live every aspect of her life so that her impact on the Earth is as beneficial as possible, both now and in the long run. For this reason, she’s an organic gardener and an expert at reducing, reusing and recycling solid wastes. She’s also the bartering queen of Leicester. And her extensive gardens, developed over the past four years on mountain pastureland, are a low-budget wonder.

A 60-foot-long terraced garden pours down in a waterfall of herbs and flowers from the Clearfields’ straw-bale cottage to their unpaved lane. My gardener/granddaughter, Ivy Rose, loves the tale of how Rachel crushed the rampant growth that blanketed the hillside, turning 600 square feet of wild grasses and weeds into green manure by laying flattened cardboard boxes (donated by local furniture merchants) over the vegetation, then lying atop each piece of cardboard in a snow-angel pose.

She covered the cardboard mulch with compost from Mountain Organic Materials in Candler, hauled to the site in her “rusty, trusty” ’82 truck. She paid for the compost, but the perennials and herbs she planted in it were bartered for art. (Ivy Rose says Rachel understands the value of plants and seeds.)

She also values good health, delicious food and self-sufficiency. By late summer, the terraced food garden’s 25 raised beds (all built by Rachel) are overflowing with tomatoes, basil, parsley, eggplant, okra, potatoes, beans, globe artichokes, carrots, beets, cucumbers, squash and four kinds of corn. “This time of year, we have vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Rachel says with a laugh.

Most of the raised beds were created with scrap lumber, free from a local sawmill. After she frames in an area (using the bank as the fourth side), Rachel fills the contained space with compost, mulching generously with hay or grass clippings. Wonderful drainage, an abundance of morning light, and constant additions of organic material produce big, lush plants that positively glow with vitality.

Rachel bartered art for two white Arabian horses — and for the materials and labor to build their stable. The manure provides a continuing supply of high-nitrogen fertilizer (as locally produced as you can get!). She throws it, hot and fresh, so far with only beneficial consequences, right on top of the thick layer of mulch covering her raised beds.

Because she doesn’t use arsenic-treated, pressurized wood to frame the beds, the scrap lumber eventually rots. She’s begun replacing it with damaged concrete blocks (more freebies from vendors of construction materials). Rachel lays a row of blocks and fills in behind them with organic matter. She overlaps the next row of blocks and sets them back a little from the one beneath, so the wall will slant toward the bank.

The wall for her asparagus bed is chest-height, making it easy to weed the bed and harvest the veggies. This summer, bush beans share the space (and help fertilize the asparagus). The beans spill attractively over the edge of the wall, so they’re a cinch to pick.

Fruits are one of Rachel’s long-range financial investments. There are grapes, watermelon, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, red-currant bushes and persimmons (some already bearing, some still maturing). Peach, plum and cherry trees border the food garden. There’s even a Manchurian apricot. Her lengthy wish list includes apple and pear trees and hardy almonds.

Rachel collects her own seeds, so she traded more art for a king-sized bed and a queen-sized bunk bed, took them apart, and used the frames, slats and posts — together with more free, damaged cinder block and some corrugated greenhouse plastic that she bought — to build a tiny greenhouse/potting shed right in the middle of the food garden. It’s exactly the size of a king-sized bed, with waist-high shelving inside for pots and flats. Sparky, an Australian shepherd dog who’s in charge of garden security, sleeps under one of the shelves, keeping an ear cocked for night raiders like coons and wild pigs.

Feathered friends (such as the mockingbirds that nest in a pole-bean tepee) are also on the front lines of Rachel’s pest-prevention program. To attract birds and beneficial insects while delighting the eye, she plants a profusion of flowers among the food crops: hollyhocks, sunflowers, nasturtiums, calendula, mallow, echinacea, canna lilies, mullein and Jerusalem artichokes.

Ivy Rose loves the way Rachel chooses seeds from catalogs: “If it has a wonderful name, I’ll buy it.” This year’s selection includes Jewels of Opar (a portulaca relative), Golden Guardian marigolds, Razzmatazz black sunflowers, Lady Godiva pumpkin, Painted Lady beans, Shoepeg corn (a Southern Appalachian heirloom), Red Velvet okra, Archangel angelica and Sunburst pattypan squash.

Rachel sometimes bakes big Sunburst pattypans in a hot oven till they’re almost tender, then cuts off the tops and stuffs the bottoms with strong cheese (drizzled with olive oil and tamari and sprinkled with black pepper and herbs), baking them a little longer till the cheese melts. Then again, she might serve them covered with sauteed onions, purple beans and orange cherry tomatoes — another way to put a dent in the unending vegetable surplus.

Next to the food gardens, a gazebo is nestled in a shady glade. Rachel didn’t barter for this treasure, but it is recycled (she found it in the Iwanna). She painted it white with pale-blue trim, planted hollyhocks beside it, and encouraged bright-pink and yellow roses to embroider its latticed sides. Sitting in the gazebo is like being inside a painting, says Ivy Rose.

In front of the gazebo stands a weeping willow that reminds Rachel of the one in her family’s garden in England when she was a child. She used to play “house” behind a curtain of willow branches, totally hidden from view. (Ivy Rose is green with envy.) The Turkey Creek willow — planted near the stream four years ago and now 20 feet tall — is surrounded by mallow, phlox, bleeding heart, flag iris and delphiniums held upright by willow branches tied to their stems. Beyond the willow there’s a water garden, where lilies, buddleia, hollyhocks, peonies, larkspur, poppies, ornamental grasses and roses crowd the stream banks.

A young elderberry tree planted beside an enormous rock serves as the gateway to this wild garden. Rachel says elderberry was sacred to gypsies, because every part of it could be used. Ivy Rose says, “Rachel must have gypsy genes, she has such a sustainable spirit.”

[Rachel Clearfield’s art adorns the cafe at Earth Fare.]

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