Chaotic Urban Garden and Spontaneous Squash

This summer we decided to turn the lawn of Preston’s house into a vegetable and flower garden. As we were building the raised bed, several of our neighbors stopped by to question what we were doing. When we explained, we got some weird looks. One neighbor even yelled “Everyone knows raised beds don’t work!” Well, we didn’t let that stop us from trying.

We cut back the sprawling cedar bushes and built raised beds out of scrap lumber and some limbs from a bur oak tree cut down in Orton Park last fall. We ripped up and turned over the sod, placed the frames on top, and filled in with top soil. We used some seedlings that we were growing for our larger community garden plot. Instead of doing rows of single species, we decided to plant a little bit of everything.

So we planted several heirloom tomato varieties, several different peppers, eggplant, ground cherry, garden huckleberry, okra, kale, swiss chard,  basil, oregano, thyme, chamomile, nasturtiums, borage, and snailflower, with marigold all around the borders to keep the bunnies at bay. We organized it all to maximize sun capture with the tallest plants in the middle and back and the shortest on the sunniest front sides. For a boost, we gave every plant a handfull of rich vermicompost from our worm bin.  For tomato stakes, we stripped the bark off the cut cedar limbs. Along the house and on the side we planted hazelnut shrubs, saskatoons, raspberries, lemon balm, and tobacco.

In the terrace in front of the sidewalk, we ripped up the grass and planted prairie plants, huckleberry, and sunflowers. With all these flowers came lots of insects. Honeybees, bumble bees, native mason bees, moths, and butterflies. We even had some dragonflies visit from time to time.

Despite its chaotic appearance, the garden was amazingly productive. The tomatoes, especially the sungolds,  kept producing copiously till the end of September. They had even crept out of the raised bed and eventually took over another square meter or so of lawn. Our house was supplied with herbs, veggies, and herbal teas all summer. We had given up on our okra, which had disappeared underneath the sprawling tomatoes until one day in late July it exploded up and produced gigantic fruit. So big, that it ended up falling over under its own weight.

The most impressively productive plant in the whole garden, however, was the butternut squash. It ended up taking over the entire rest of the lawn. Every 5 feet or so, it would put down more roots, and send out more flowering and fruiting shoots. This one individual plant ended up producing over 100 lbs. of squash! And the craziest part is that we didn’t even plant it. The squash seed must have come from our worm compost. I was worried that it would end up being some weird hybrid with inedible fruits, but they turned out to be delicious butternuts. Another crazy thing about the mondo squash plant that took over our yard, is that it shaded the grass and kept it moist and lush all summer long, when it otherwise would have dried up in the drought. Thank’s spontaneous squash!

The funnest part about the garden was sitting inside and watching people’s reaction when they’d walk by. Some would give weird looks and walk away. Others would stop and stare in disbelief. One guy was walking with his girlfriend and they stopped to check it out. They were figuring out what all the different plants were, and were particularly impressed with the squash. The guy said, “wow, everyone should be doing this.” Then he said it again. Then he literally shouted, “everyone should be doing this!!” We agree – and hope the neighbors could hear.


Zev Paiss

Well done! Great example of building increased self-reliance right in our own front yards.