Suburban homesteading: .38 acres and a roto-tiller

In June 1978, my family moved away from San Luis Obispo, California, a place I recall in three images: orange roadside poppies, rocky tide pools, and honeysuckle vines dripping from our backyard playhouse. I was four years old. My father had accepted an assistant professor position at The Ohio State University, so we left Cal Poly and the Central Coast and settled in Columbus, Ohio. The Blizzard of ’78 was still on neighbors’ lips, and there were fireflies at dusk. The house itself, a 4-bedroom bay-windowed affair clad in mustard-colored siding and black aluminum awnings, peeped out from behind a looming spruce like a mustachioed and heavily browed Charlie Chaplin.

Bounded on one end by Upper Arlington High School and on the other by a row of storefronts (I could buy milk at the Big Bear, post mail, explore the hardware store, browse books, select dollhouse furniture, and purchase chunks of white chocolate on a single trip), our two-block street had once been envisioned as a grander boulevard. The 1940s subdivision plan allowed for a four-lane road as well as a back alley—but both ideas were later abandoned. And so the elms that lined our street were set unusually far from the sidewalk, and each houselot gained ground front and back—in all, .38 acres of good Ohio clay.

House lot sketch

Just up from a shopping center and just down from the high school, our .38 acre lot packed in the productivity.

In 1978, my father was 34, my mother 30 (and still recovering from a debilitating bout of food-borne hepatitis); my sisters were 6 and 2, my brother an infant. I can only imagine how my parents coped with so many demands on their time and money. Because of (or in spite of?) these stresses, they started planting things.

Today our family’s efforts might be termed urban farming or homesteading; we called it “putting in a garden.” The soil Dad tilled had to be amended dramatically, but eventually it offered up Swiss chard (not my favorite), peas, carrots, beans, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, tomatoes, summer squash, and herbs, as well as red raspberries, rhubarb, peaches, pears, apples, concord grapes, and plums (red, purple, and yellow). In deference to my parents’ western roots, we even planted an apricot tree—but the squirrels and raccoons stripped it every year, just as the hard green fruits turned the faintest blush. There were other failures, too; the garden grew in fits and starts, our efforts hindered by competition from critters, busy schedules, and crabby teenagers, to say nothing of sticky mid-morning encounters with sly mosquitoes.

Planting the Westmont garden, May 1980

Richard Neils Christensen and daughters Danille and Marnae planting seeds, Columbus, Ohio, May 1980.

But even when the yard wasn’t entirely productive, my mother still processed food purchased from co-ops and local orchards. Canned tomatoes, beans, pears, peaches, apples, grape juice, plums, and jam jostled for space in our basement storage closet, alongside bags of dehydrated pears and bottles of cherries, raspberries, and apricots sent east by my father’s mother. I remember gnawing on homemade grape leather while classmates looked on, curious in the days before commercial pureed fruit rolls, and waking to the sweet smell of plum trees in full bloom. Delivering newspapers on cool humid mornings, even at the far end of the block I could see those trees hovering white in the early light. My family’s yard, packed with limbs and vines and wasps buzzing drunk on ripe fruit, was an anomaly in our neighborhood.

So: why flout suburban norms in the 1980s? More on this to come.


One comment

  1. Danille, notice the little sticks in the background behind my back. I suspect they are row markers of things already planted.

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