A Gardening Memoir

Author Jeanne Nolan shares her journey of growth and reconciliation through organic gardening.

gardening memoir

From the Ground Up

Jeanne Nolan's memoir of organic gardening.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Image courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Jeanne Nolan's memoir of organic gardening.

Jeanne Nolan's memoir From the Ground Up is a fascinating tale that draws a parallel between organic growing and personal growth. As Nolan plants organic gardens throughout the Chicago area, first for a small group of well to do clients, and then for the homeless and needy, she begins a process of healing and reconciliation spurred on by events that began decades before.

author Jeanne Nolan

Author Jeanne Nolan

Author Jeanne Nolan's memoir From the Ground Up chronicles the author's pursuit of a social responsibility, lessened environmental impact and well-being through organic gardening.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Jill Paider

Image courtesy of Jill Paider

Author Jeanne Nolan's memoir From the Ground Up chronicles the author's pursuit of a social responsibility, lessened environmental impact and well-being through organic gardening.

Always at odds with her privileged upbringing in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka and what she perceived as its materialism and superficiality, Nolan essentially went "off the grid" at age 19, joining up with a farming commune called Zendik Farm Arts Cooperative that demanded utter allegiance to its values.  The group moved around to fertile land from Asheville to Austin growing organic crops, giving Nolan a vital education in how to grow food organically.  

"In my seventeen years at Zendik Farm, I learned more about growing organic food than I ever could have hoped to," writes Nolan. 

But that knowledge came at a cost.

What was initially an escape from social values she didn't share in her parents' world began to reveal itself as an oppressive cult, that demanded Nolan emotionally separate from the father of her child and even her own young daughter.

From the Ground Up shows Nolan's journey leaving Zendik behind and in the process trying to carve out a new life for herself that still holds true to the values of healthy living, organic growing and anti-materialism practiced  at Zendik. Nolan discovers that while she had essentially dropped out of society, the world had changed pretty significantly, with many mainstream Americans suddenly hungry to reconnect with the Earth, plant home vegetable gardens and make use of neglected inner-city real estate to plant urban gardens.

"I'd rejoined traditional society just in time to discover America's surging interest in sustainable foods—and to find that I had a part to play in that movement," she observes.

Nolan begins her journey with a business she calls The Organic Gardener, planting small personal vegetable plots for the prosperous friends and neighbors of her own family in Chicago's well-heeled suburbs. But when she takes a job with the Chicago farmers' market Green City Market, her opportunities begin to open up, including an organic garden that Nolan is hired to develop. Under the auspices of the Green City Market, the 5,000 square foot Edible Garden, develops into both a working garden and teaching tool. It also becomes Nolan's calling card as she begins to share her gardening knowledge with visitors to the garden and capitalize on the increasing interest in organic growing. Nolan helps design rooftop gardens for progressive restauranteurs who want healthy, fresh food close by. And she begins to expand her interests from Chicago's more prosperous denizens to the needy, as when she gets involved in planting a garden at a homeless shelter.

But more than a story about gardening, From the Ground Up also charts Nolan's reconciliation with her own parents, who remain steadfast at her side. The book is about a personal journey, but also about what any gardener knows is the therapeutic, healing and life-affirming potential of gardening and growth, something Nolan experiences when she meets two grieving widows for whom gardening becomes a balm to their loss.

In her vastly entertaining book, Nolan is heartfelt in describing her transformation from a young woman estranged from her family and culture to someone doing her part to transform the culture from within. But From the Ground Up is also incredibly informative, filled with remarkable gardening insight and know-how as Nolan describes the process and importance of planting and nurturing an organic garden.

"I had learned that an acre, a quarter acre, or a tenth of an acre of dirt that a person tends with his or her hands can have an immense impact on that individual and on society at large," writes Nolan of her powerful trajectory.

Jeanne Nolan's 10 Growing Tips:

1. Goals Articulate your goals: Why do you want to grow a garden? How much food do you want to grow? An average-size garden for a family of four would be roughly eight feet by sixteen feet if planted in a raised bed and ten feet by twenty feet if planted in the ground.

2. Sunlight Most fruits and vegetables require loads of sun, so pick a spot for your garden that gets at least six to eight hours of sun per day (you can measure the amount of sun you get with an affordable device like a SunCalc). If your location has limited sun (five to six hours), choose crops that can tolerate less sun, such as leafy greens, cucumbers, beans and herbs. 

3. Soil Nothing is more important to the success of your garden than soil health. Whether you are working in the ground or in a raised bed, you ideally want to plant in twelve to eighteen inches of well-aerated, nutrient-dense soil. Use a generous amount of compost. Follow the directions that come with your granulated organic fertilizer. Be sure to aerate your soil and add compost and fertilizer annually. If you are planning to garden near an old house or in the city, test your soil for lead or other toxins. 

4. Paths Without paths, the soil in a garden can get compacted, which makes it hard for roots to spread and chokes off the oxygen that’s essential to plant growth. Be sure to clearly demarcate the paths around your rows with straw, woodchips, stone or another medium. 

5. Fencing Rabbit-proof fencing extends two and a half to three and a half feet high and at least four inches below ground; the holes in the mesh should be no bigger than one inch by two inches. Deer-proof fencing can range from five to eight feet high depending on the size of the deer population and the amount of open space around the garden (the more space the deer have to run and jump, the higher the fence should be). 

6. Irrigation Some gardeners enjoy the task of hand watering. But if you have only an hour a week to spend in your garden, use that time to tend your plants and install a watering system on an automatic timer. I particularly like drip-line tubing because it delivers water to plants at their roots. An ordinary sprinkler connected to your garden hose can work as well, particularly when attached to an automatic timer. (Be sure to time the sprinkler to irrigate in the early morning or evening so that wet plants are not scorched by the midday sun.)

7. Plan On paper, map out where you want to put paths and rows and the rough location of each crop; be sure to account for companion planting and put tall plants on the north side of the space so that they don’t shade the others. If a row has paths on both sides, the row should be no wider than four feet so that plants can be reached and tended from both sides. If a row can be reached from only one side, make it roughly two feet wide. The single most common problem I encounter in gardens is overplanting—try to use restraint in the planting process! When you are planning your garden after the first year, keep in mind that it is best to rotate your crops, as soil can get depleted and plants are more prone to problems when you grow the same crop in the same place every year. 

8. Supplies All your supplies—fertilizer, compost, seeds, labels, plant supports, trowels, round-nose shovels, hard rakes and broadforks—can be purchased online or from a local nursery. Organic seedlings can also often be purchased from local farmers at your farmers' market. All types of compost from your local nursery or home improvement store work well—just go as organic as you can. Seed catalogs are a fantastic resource for seeds, tools, plants and advice. A few of my favorites are johnnyseeds.comseedsavers.org, and highmowingseeds.com.

9. Planting There are two basic ways to plant—by placing seeds directly in the ground or by putting plants (seedlings) in the ground (transplanting). I always plant tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other large fruiting crops as seedlings. Vegetables including carrots, beans and radishes I always plant from seeds. You can think of crops in two basic categories—cold-tolerant crops that can be planted in early spring and will germinate and grow in cool soil and air temperatures (such as spinach, broccoli and peas) and heat-loving crops (such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) that must be planted in the late spring or early summer after the threat of a frost has passed. Find out which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in (go to the National Gardening Association’s website: garden.org/zipzone). This will help you determine what to plant when in your region and will also give you an idea of the timing of the first and last frosts. 

10. Tending and Harvesting Critical tending activities include thinning your plants so that they don’t crowd each other, staking plants to support vertical growth, and weeding regularly by hand. Fertilizing to give your plants a boost is optional but does wonders for plant health and productivity. I like to use a liquid organic fish emulsion and seaweed spray every other week, and side dressing with granulated organic fertilizer once a month during the peak growing season. I also like to walk through my gardens at least once a week, doing “rounds” to observe their needs—taking the time to notice if any plants are leaning over that need staking; if any leaves are discolored, indicating that the plants may need nutrients; or if any pests have arrived that need troubleshooting. My harvesting advice is simple: Don’t wait too long and don’t be shy—if something looks and smells ripe to you, pick it and taste it. The best way to become a good harvester is to learn by doing.

Adapted from the Book, FROM THE GROUND UP by Jeanne Nolan. Copyright (c) 2013 by Jeanne Nolan. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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