@story and images MARLA CANTRELL
Rodney Collins stands in his front yard in Little Rock, just a stone’s throw from the Arkansas State Capitol. He lives for days like this one, the sky rumbling, the clouds low, rain splashing as it hits the fig trees and peppers. The grass, if he had any, would benefit from this steady shower, but Rodney doesn’t have any grass.
He killed every blade when he moved here from Houston in 2008. “One of the first things I did,” Rodney says, “was cover the lawn with these big sheets of black plastic. I left them there for the summer. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it took care of the problem.”
It must have been a shock, seeing a perfectly good lawn condemned by this Texan, but Rodney believed his new neighbors would understand his need to rip up the grass and install only edible plants. Before he moved in, he scoured the neighborhood, peering into backyards where he saw a raft of kitchen gardens, a few chickens here and there, and bees buzzing across the well manicured front lawns. His new neighbors would likely buy into his idea, he thought.
Not that it looks like your grandpa’s garden. Rodney, an architect and builder, has worked his magic on this space. He put in a picket fence, planted daylilies and zinnias along the perimeter – and yes, he eats those, too – and installed meandering paths across his 400 square feet of Eden. The first winter he planted daikon radishes as a cover crop, because the roots, which can grow to twenty inches, helped break up the soil. He had composted soil brought in, truckloads of it, named his garden Outfox Farm, and started to experiment.
“I didn’t have a hard and fast plan,” Rodney says. “The best way to see what you can grow is to plant something, watch it, and see how it does. I planted a lot of herbs, and fellow gardeners gave me starts of plants. I let whatever comes up grow, whether it’s weeds or squash.” Rodney shrugs. “You just adapt.”
And as for those weeds? He’s selling them at farmers’ markets. For $2.50 a bag. “I’ve planted things like dandelions, lambsquarters, plantain and yellow dock. They’re much more nutritious than cultivated greens. Weeds have these incredible root systems that pull the minerals from the earth. I use some of them in my morning smoothie, sauté some of them, use them in stews.”
But that’s not all he’s doing. He’s planning to release his own line of specialty teas this fall, including Thai Holy Basil, an herb he grew from seed he bought in India.
As he’s telling the story, his three-year-old Izzy comes bounding off the porch and into the rain. “It’s been great for her,” he says. “She’s out here with me a lot. It’s a stress free time, checking the plants. She loves the strawberries, and I tell her, ‘Those aren’t easy to grow. I only do that for you.’” Tucked away amidst a flow of flowers and herbs is her own little playhouse, and beside that the tiny goldfish pond Rodney built for her to tend.
Izzy heads to the backyard to check on the three chickens that chirp inside a makeshift coop. Nearby are about thirty New Zealand rabbits that hop on a swell of red clover. Their droppings help fertilize the crops, and Rodney harvests all but the breeders – Minnie, Mickey, and the buck, Goofy, all named by Izzy.
There are no chemicals on this urban garden. “My biggest pest is Izzy. She likes to pick the tomatoes when they’re green,” Rodney says, and then tousles Izzy’s blond hair . The real insects, the praying mantis, honey bees, parasitic wasps and the like, they’re beneficial.”
Izzy is living a much different childhood than Rodney, who spent his early years in Louisiana, where his father and uncles all gardened, competing for the biggest pepper of summer. To get it, they soaked their plants in commercial fertilizers and doused them with pesticides. “They were of that generation that didn’t see the harm in it. I learned what not to do from them.”
But it was couponing that finally led him to the garden. “I’d gotten into the craze,” Rodney says, “and there’s so much abundance there, and I had every processed food known to man. I delve into what I’m doing, so I was getting all this food and eating it. And then one day my doctor said that I either needed to change my diet or take drugs for the rest of my life.”
That shook him up. He did research. Tried macrobiotics. Then vegan. Then a raw food diet. Finally, he found the balance he was looking for. “Gardening,” he says, “besides all the obvious benefits, will open your mind.” And while he can’t grow all his food on this 60 by 120 foot plot, he knows something most of us don’t. “I eat grass-fed meat from a farmer that I know. I know my dairy farmer. I get eggs from a farmer I know who shakes my hand when I see him. I get honey from a guy I call up and say, ‘Do you have honey today?’”
That’s a great comfort in the age of massive food recalls, where the source of contamination can take weeks to track down. Rodney knows none of that fear. It’s a good start, but not where he wants to be. He’s looking for a bigger piece of land, a place for cows and sheep, and a garden so big he can grow everything his family eats. Until then, he allows his edible yard to evolve. He walks to the spot where a pumpkin vine emerged on its own free will. “I learn from the plants,” he says. “A garden expresses itself, shows you what works and what doesn’t. You just have to be in tune enough to recognize what it’s saying.”If you’d like to try urban gardening, check out a book titled Your Farm in the City by Lisa Taylor.