Urban Re-Wilding: How I Unlawned
~ by Chris Phillips, October 2022
My urban block is gifted with long narrow lots. To prepare, we – my neighbors and I -- removed and repurposed a rusty chain-link fence and took down a big spreading Ailanthus tree which shaded both backyards. This opened up sun space to work with and to add many more plant kin to the area.
One of my goals was productivity. I love to grow food, flowers, and cooking and medicinal herbs for a 12 month harvest. This was especially important during the years when a small community ran a Catholic WorkerCSA business, which we called Saint Fiacre Microfarm. We grew food in many gardens around the county and distributed the CSA shares from my home. We fed about 10 families in the winter, 5 families in the summer, with plenty to share among the 3 or 4 workers who met every morning before work for prayer around my wood stove. We got really creative about keeping the year-round harvest going. We used a plastic covered hoop-house, a big root cellar in my basement, winter storage pits, and clever timing for staggering planting and harvest.
Creating the main vegetable garden involved smothering patches of sod with big tarps. I spent several months jumping tarps forward and double digging the main garden bed. I followed the American Biointensive method taught by John Jeavons. This process offers the the best way to foster deep, soft, carbon rich soils and productive plant life in confined spaces. I use such double digging whenever I start a garden under 1000 square feet. And then I try to never step in the soil again.
The topsoil in this area has built up very well since the glaciers. Our neighborhood is blessed with about 22 inches of dark loamy well drained soil fairly free of rocks. Double digging (two shovel blades deep) extends that topsoil a little deeper, and breaks up any hardpan barrier. After that point, I add balancing nutritious compost whenever I can, or feed the top layer with slowly decomposing carbon mulches.
The yard already had a big Blackberry patch and 20 grape vines. There are now summer and fall Red Raspberries, Black Raspberries, Golden Raspberries, Blueberries, Boysenberries, Elderberries, dwarf Sour Cherries and a Mulberry tree.
Each garden has mixed into it culinary herbs, healing and sacred herbs, plus flowers for cutting and for pollinators and birds. I like a cottage garden style with successive blooms among the perennials, and here and there a splash of annuals for steady color. I can create year-round bouquets with fresh stems, dried flowers, forcing bulbs, or blossoming branches. I think it’s important to demonstrate that we can drop out of the global floral market with its misuse of labor and energy and pesticides. Each of my sloppy little arrangements is art for local Nonviolence and Joy in the passing moment.
Bird Awe & Belonging
I get so much delight from my feeder visitors. When busy times or troubles come and I can’t do anything else I still fill the feeders so I can stand at the window for moments of awe and belonging. There are feeders for seed and suet, jelly for orioles and Niger Seed for finches. I plant natives for hummingbirds and pollinators. I used to deadhead my flowers and now I mostly let the goldfinches flit and feast.
I barter work and space with my neighbors to extend the wild pleasures into their yards. We share thornless Blackberries, Bartlett, Comice and Bosc Pears, Golden Delicious apples, and an arbor loaded with Niagara grapes.
Gardening like Forest and Fields
Another one of my goals has been to avoid pristine perfection. I set up patterns between and within the gardens like the shifting relationships of forest and field. It’s definitely not a glamour garden. It’s a mess! I want to walk into a garden that’s bigger than me, the way wild places continually offer mystery revelations! My design is more fluid than a “project.” It’s a mirror of ecology’s complex systems of synergies, interconnections, and surprises. Slowly the lawn with gardens in it has become a Place threaded with grassy paths.
Of course this yard of gardens has a larger context -- neighbors’ yards, big neighborhood trees offering habitat around the Irondequoit Bay watershed, a neighborhood stream, and the wild animals which come through! Another lively context is all the people who share the cooperative work, the food, our learnings, and the silent prayer and meditation. There would be no wild space here without all those supports surrounding it, the soil below, and the sky above.
A new goal has gotten more important as I care for aging family and friends, deal with major new body limits, and follow my other passions like full-time teaching and coaching for prayer and mindfulness. I’m learning to plan resilience not perfection. I’m learning to follow flexibility for the Earth, resilience that can keep delighted for the long haul journey toward the Life Sustaining Society that is to come. I desire personal resilience flow, not projects that act like ships which enslave their own sailors. None of us are perfect working machines with unlimited energy. I used to think I should be. Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener does a nice job of articulating this –
The last few years I’ve been more able to meet an old goal – shifting the work of effort through self-agency into the work of play and wonder. Maybe I can let myself become the wild and native person that is my birthright? I used to be more caught up in celebrating “what I did” in the garden (and equally getting caught in unfixable “problems/failures”). There is now a sense of receiving more, taking in and then giving away everything glorious that arises. Small and large glories are not “mine.” They are made of working, then waiting & watching, receiving emergent phenomena, gifts and surprises. They’re the letting be of miracles.
Chris Phillips lives and gardens in the city of Rochester. He teaches classes and coaches 1-on-1 to support mindfulness and contemplative prayer. For more info, contact him at SunlightoftheHeart@outlook.com