Photographed by Kirsten Beckerman
“What’s for dinner?”
Oh, the dreaded question, one posed by children big and small about 5 p.m. each day.
Wouldn’t it be great if the answer were simply, “Go pick it”?
It is for these five families, who, like families all over Baltimore, are growing their own dinners in backyards, in shared community plots and in window boxes. These parents say that cultivating fruit, vegetables and herbs teaches their children about nutrition, home economics and stewardship of the earth— and, best of all, allows them to share in the excitement of watching something grow before their eyes.
A Yardful Of Snacks
Whenever 11-year-old Bryson Ziman craves a summer snack, he sneaks into the backyard garden and chows down on his favorite sweet. His mother, Bethany Ziman, doesn’t mind because Bryson’s confection comes from the family’s “candy tree,” a robust organic raspberry bush growing in the yard of their Lake Walker house. Bryson and his brother, Brackston, 14, also regularly snack on broccoli and cucumbers from the garden. “Those vegetables rarely make it inside,” says Bethany.
The family’s 750-square-foot garden, fragranced with fruit trees and herbs, is a perpetually blossoming and buzzing agro-ecosystem. There are as many as 10 birds nests perched around the yard and, since the Zimans are a host family for the Baltimore Honey project, they shelter a hive that can yield as many as 30,000 worker bees in a season. Often over dinner, the Zimans discuss “the importance of chemical-free food we grow and eat, nurturing the soil and all the birds and critters that have made our garden their home,” says Bethany.
Bethany, her husband, Bruce, and their sons spend countless hours planting and tending more than 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including lettuces, spinach, tomatoes, asparagus, squash, melons, strawberries, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant— even hops to brew their own beer.
Bryson’s job is to collect table scraps, garden refuse and eggshells and deliver it to the compost pit in the back of the garden. Each week he and his 17-year-old brother, Baylor, churn it and scatter it into the soil. Brackston’s job is to weed and harvest, which can be a daily duty toward the end of the summer. Beyond their chores, the boys often have dinner in the garden, and like to hang out there reading and doing homework.
“They consider it another room of our house,” says Bethany.
A Growth Market
One of Lenny Sheft’s most vivid memories of growing up in Long Island in the 1970s is his family’s communal garden plot, which was part of a 4-H farming program sponsored by Columbia University. Every day after school, Lenny would ride his bicycle to the farm to weed, water and harvest then ride home carrying the produce on his back.
Today, Lenny and his wife, Anita, are committed to teaching their daughters how to grow their own vegetables in their 500-square-foot garden in Timonium. Mikayla, 7, plants and maintains Lemon Boy tomatoes; she likes their vibrant yellow skin and low acidity. Lexi, 10, intent upon reaping the season’s first tomato, cultivates Early Girls, a bright orange standard-size variety popular with home growers for its early ripening.
“We especially grow tomatoes because they are the one fruit that tastes remarkably different from what you can buy in a store,” says Lenny.
Since Lexi is a big salsa fan, she plants tomatillos. The family also cultivates ancho and Thai hot peppers, along with squash, various kinds of eggplant and peas, which they nibble on in the garden. They also raise rhubarb for their grandmother to bake into strawberry pies. “I’m into teaching the girls to experiment with many varieties of a vegetable species,” says Lenny. “And whatever we can’t eat, we share with our neighbors.”
City Life, Countrified
When Mark and Krista were planning a garden for the backyard of their home on a busy city street, they followed the advice Barbara Kingsolver offered in her book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”: “Choose what you grow by what’s most expensive at the grocery store.”
Together with daughters Aylah, 7, and Soren, 5, Mark and Krista (who requested their last name be withheld), grow red and yellow bell peppers, herbs and fruit—all especially pricey in the organic variety. Last season, Aylah planted basil (to top her tomatoes) and blueberries, while Soren assisted Krista with tomatoes. Mark planted cucumbers, raspberry bushes, sugar-strawberries, watermelon, herbs and beans. “They won’t touch wax beans if I cook them,” says Krista. “But they will stand here and eat them off of their plant forever.”
Late last summer, the family acquired three hens, which lay every day. The girls helped Mark construct a coop entirely of recycled yard materials and now, in addition to their weeding and watering responsibilities, they rotate hen chores. After every meal, the girls rush to empty their table scraps into the two compost bins— one for the garden, one for the hens.
“One hen lays blue eggs and that’s special,” says Aylah. “They taste delicious.”
Living Off The Land
Jakir Manela, his wife, Nets, their 3-year-old son, Lev, and baby Shama live almost entirely off the land.
Jakir is the founding director of the Kayam Farm, a non-profit organic farm and environmental learning center associated with Reisterstown’s Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center. Nets, a self-taught herbalist, can identify all of the edible grasses and culinary and medicinal herbs that grow wild around the family’s home.
The family makes tea from the clovers and pesto from wild violets, and Lev nibbles on plants and produce from the yard while he plays. (Though Lev can identify much of what’s edible, he has been taught to ask his mother before actually eating it.)
Lev has his own gardening tools and plants in the garden with very little supervision. “We began giving him seeds when he was still a baby so he knows what to do,” says Nets.
Upon watering a new plant, Lev says a blessing over it. Then he watches it grow.
Five-year-old Charlotte Marshall’s “projects” are scattered around the family room and kitchen of her family’s rowhouse in Butchers Hill. Rather than customary crayon drawings or Lego models, the rooms are filled with cups and small pots of burgeoning vegetable plants.
“This is okra,” Charlotte explains. “First it grows in this cup. Then I move it into the garden.” She packs up her spade, trowel and watering can and sets out for her nightly six-block walk.
Charlotte, along with her parents, Chris and Beth Marshall, and her 2-year-old sister, Winslow, tends one of 70 community garden plots in Patterson Park that are part of the Department of Parks and Recreation’s City Farm initiative. The cost is $30 per year and along with the food growing benefits, families participate for the sociability it provides: an urban locavore’s “play group” of sorts. “It helps to keep families in the city,” says Chris.
The Marshall family’s plot is filled with herbs, tomatoes, okra, squash, green beans, peppers and wildflowers. “I growed [sic] them from seeds,” Charlotte proclaims as she posts a hand-drawn picture of a ladybug onto a border stake. Beth and Charlotte pre-select their garden plants in the winter and plant in the springtime. “Being vegetarians, it is more meaningful that the girls learn about the food they consume,” says Beth. “They get so excited about what they eat.”
Charlotte harvests, while Winslow eats what she picks. “My sister likes to eat our tomatoes,” says Charlotte as she pulls one off and hands it to Winslow. “I love edamame!”