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Grow Your Own: What Happens When A Writer and a Farmer Start a Blog

Amanda & Jeanne

Amanda                                                                                          Jeanne

 

We know what you might say:

I don’t have time to cook food from scratch, let alone grow it from scratch. I don’t have the space or the patience or the know-how or, for that matter, the green thumb. And even if I could grow my own fruits and vegetables, my kids wouldn’t eat them.

We’re here to convince you: You can. You do. They will.

Welcome to Grow Your Own. We’re Jeanne and Amanda, and we’re going to explain how everyone, everywhere can grow their own food. We hope to get you fired up about the many benefits (health isn’t the half of it) of homegrown fruits and vegetables, and plug you in to the growing trend in urban farming. In the next few months, as summer sets in, organic food will be growing in every American city in backyard gardens and schoolyards, on rooftops, fire escapes, windowsills, and community plots. This blog will equip you and your family to join the growing ranks of America’s DIY farmers.

We come at this topic from two different angles. Jeanne, a Chicago native, is a bona fide hands-in-the-dirt food-growing expert who this season will plant her 650-somethingth urban farm. Amanda, an environmental journalist, can barely keep a fern alive, but this year she’s planting her first backyard 8-by-12-foot mini-farm. She doesn’t have much of a choice, because once you get to know Jeanne’s work and her life story (as Amanda has, pretty intimately, for the last few years) your desire to grow food begins to rearrange you, and you’re never quite the same again.

Jeanne’s Story:

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Jeanne’s garden and house

Jeanne runs her own growing business, has a husband, two kids, a dog, a nice home in the suburbs, and seems, on the face of it, like she’s living the American Dream. But the winding path she took to get where she is today lead her through so much adventure and heartache, so much struggle and triumph, that many who know her have said to her, “Your life should be a book.” (Sort of an Eat, Pray, Love meets Omnivore’s Dilemma.) Which is why, when we met, we decided to write a book together. We collaborated with our friend Deborah Murphy, a Maine-based fiction writer and mom who also loves to garden, and the result is From The Ground Up: A Food Grower’s Education in Life, Love and the Movement That’s Changing The Nation (Random House: Spiegel & Grau), which comes out this July.

The book is a memoir of Jeanne’s life, and tells the parallel story of the rise of the sustainable food movement. Jeanne was born in 1968 in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. In high school, she was a classic Claire Standish the cute, popular, tennis-playing, straight-A-making student body vice president. Things took a turn early in her senior year when for reasons involving a boy, some books, and a trip to Europe she began to feel a gnawing emptiness in her suburban life and started to reject everything around her. Midway through her senior year (to her parents’ shock) she decided to bag high school, leave behind the comfort of the suburbs, and join a commune on a farm in southern California. There, she planned to save herself and the world at the same time.

For the next 17 years she lived with the three dozen members of the commune in remote California, then in Texas and North Carolina, rising through the ranks from basic gardening tasks like composting and harvesting to eventually manage the 100-acre organic farm that fed the community. But instead of achieving the big dreams that had led her to commune life, she wound up discovering, in a deep trench of depression at the age of 35, that she had trapped herself and her 2-year-old daughter in a place and vision she didn’t believe in. In 2004 they fled, with nowhere to go but back to Jeanne’s parents, and to Winnetka, the place that had once seemed to be the very definition of everything wrong with American life and society. But it was back home that her real understanding of food, the food movement, mothering and family really began.

To feed herself and her toddler, Thea, Jeanne planted a small food garden inside a white picket fence in her parents’ back yard. She had never grown on a small scale before (she was used to planting 300 tomato plants at a time, not three) but the garden went crazy. It was a mutiny of peas, cucumbers, berries, eggplants, broccoli, beets, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, kale and chard. The sunflowers grew 15 feet tall, the melons actually jumped the fence and began invading her parents’ manicured lawn. The neighbors were agog. Family and friends urged Jeanne to start a DIY backyard farming business. She began posting flyers for the one-woman enterprise she called The Organic Gardener. The first season she had 12 clients; the next, 25.

Eight years later, Jeanne has now planted more than 650 farms and food gardens in and around Chicago — on restaurant rooftops and in downtown parks, public school yards, suburban estates, inner-city shelters, the Lincoln Park Zoo, even the mayor’s back yard. She does regular tutorials around the city, teaching everyone from Garden Club members to public school teachers how to grow food.

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Amanda’s Story:

The two of us met in 2010, when Amanda was in Chicago doing an event for her book Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy (HarperCollins). Amanda, who now lives with her musician husband and kids in Nashville, TN, and teaches journalism at Vanderbilt, had spent the previous ten years writing about energy and the environment for publications ranging from Outside to Rolling Stone. In Power Trip she explored how fossil fuels built the American superpower, and how the very fuels that made our nation great are now hurting our economy and environment. To research the book, Amanda traveled to offshore oil rigs and NASCAR superspeedways, into the catacombs of the Pentagon and the guts of the electricity grid. Her reporting also took her to a 10,000-acre corn farm in Kansas where she learned how farmers use petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow their food.

One of the chapters in her book examined just this the intimate connection between our food and fossil fuels. Amanda investigated the environmental and human impacts of the petroleum-derived chemicals used in industrial farming; she looked at America’s heavy reliance on food imports (nearly half of our fruits and vegetables come from other countries), and at the billions of gallons of fuel that are burned each year in transporting our food from farm to fork. As Amanda traveled around the country talking to audiences about Power Trip, she found that food (more than any other issue in the book) got people’s attention. She saw that food matters to us on a personal, human level in a way that so many other environmental issues do not.

Amanda's mini-farm in Nashville, TN.

Amanda’s mini-farm, week 1

So when the two of us, Jeanne and Amanda, crossed paths unexpectedly in 2010, we found we had a lot to talk about. We agreed that the rising sustainable food movement was one of the most exciting and hopeful trends of our time. And now, three years later, in spring 2013 at the opening of growing season, as Jeanne sets out to grow her millionth perfect heirloom tomato and Amanda sets out to grow her first, we feel that excitement more than ever.

What You Will Get Here:

Our blog, like our book about Jeanne’s life, will have a blend of personal narrative and facts, tips and resources. You’ll learn why food matters, what’s going wrong with the American food system, what’s going right, how to get involved, and why there’s no time like the present to grow your own.

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