Backyard Bounty: A Hyde Park family eats what they sow

Between the struggling economy, the threat of global warming, and the growing desire to know exactly what goes into our food, it’s a good time to get back to basics. Last spring, Hyde Park resident Pam Birnie began turning her backyard into a highly productive vegetable garden. With no real experience at gardening, Birnie and her husband Rori cut out large swaths of the lawn, filling in topsoil mounds to plant a number of different vegetables. They grew everything from asparagus to zucchini, including eggplants, lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall they reaped the benefits with meals of heirloom tomatoes and a variety of peppers. “There is nothing as tasty as vegetables still warm from the sun,” Birnie says.

After reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp, Birnie was astounded by the dirty secrets of our food production and transportation. With some vegetables hailing from as far away as New Zealand and Chile, the amount of energy used to transport most foods from farm to market is shocking. The carbon footprint of this food transportation and industrial farming is enormous, but growing your own vegetables is relatively inexpensive and has extremely low environmental impact. With the help of her sons and husband, Birnie decided to do her part and grow as much of her family’s food as possible.

Learning about cultivation was not difficult. They found an informal vegetable growing community within the neighborhood that provided advice on things like how to arrange the garden’s layouts to maximize sunshine exposure. Neighbors and friends who garden were “great mentors,” says Birnie. These resources, along with a wealth of literature and the nearby Hyde Park community gardens, helped make this project a success. “It’s fun to buy as little as possible, and satisfying making an entire meal from foods we’ve grown,” says Birnie. Now that winter approaches, “it’s a shock to have to go and buy vegetables!”

Early on, the family decided there was no point in “having a war with the squirrels” because there was enough excess to allow some degree of pilfering. Pest control involved growing “companion plants,” such as marigold, to discourage invaders. Avoiding harmful pesticides, Birnie defended her Brussels sprouts by manually squashing invading caterpillars and using low doses of organic pesticides. Visitors to the garden included rabbits, opossums, raccoons, and a variety of birds, many coming to bathe or fish in the goldfish pond. Bees arrived, pollinating the garden while taking their nectar. Despite their nibbling, the family was pleased to see the rabbits and other creatures inhabiting a beautiful ecosystem in their own backyard.

The Birnies believe this is something anyone can do: all you need is a lot of sun. Illinois has a long growing season and can support a wide variety of plants. Although there were challenges like intensive weeding, gardening “wasn’t as exhausting as we thought it would be,” Birnie explains. Depending on how things were going, the family spent some part of their weekends tending to their vegetables. Starting out in the spring was the most difficult, with the biggest efforts spent cutting out the lawn and mounding topsoil into beds.

The Birnies will be growing even more next year. They plan to extend their bounty over winter by adding turnips and other root vegetables, and turning part of their basement into a root cellar. With numerous vegetables like onions, kohlrabi, and mushrooms, as well as plans to can, the garden will hopefully provide sustenance all year round. Inspired by a fellow gardener, they’re debating adding a chicken coop to provide fertilizer and eggs next year. Bees could be another addition, pollinating the garden and providing sweet honey.

Despite her sons’ jokes–they “wanted to know if I wasn’t enough of a hippie growing up, and now I have to compensate”–Birnie loves her garden. To grow a plant from a seed and do her little part has been a great experience, and now she has her own supply of tasty home-grown vegetables.